Today, artificial hearts, minds, and voices. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering presents
this series about the machines that make our civilization
run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
The wonderful seventeenth century
gave us the new idea that we could observe nature, and
use what we saw to create a science that'd help us to
build machines. With that new observational science, we
expected to begin working miracles. A recent book by
Hankins and Silverman shows just how far that went.
One idea had hovered over machine-making ever since
ancient times. If we could make machines, couldn't we
also replicate living creatures. The Egyptians did
remarkable things with model birds. The Greeks made
statues with talking heads. (Of course, that turned out
to be trickery with hidden speaking tubes.)
Now, in the mid 1600s, the potential for machines was
opening up before us. Interest in replicating life was
(dare I say) re-animated. Naturally, the most interesting
life-form was the human being. And the most obvious
mechanical function had to be eating and elimination.
That did, indeed, attract attention. So did such sensory
functions as sight and hearing. But, to make a machine
that would pass for human, we needed something
So speech was the function we first tried to replicate.
One of my favorite people from that age, John Wilkins,
was into everything from medicine to space travel. He
suggested that we might assemble sounds from nature.
Quenching a hot rod in water made the Zee sound; plucking
a string made the NG sound, and so forth.
In the late sixteen hundreds, Robert Hooke found
that he could stroke the teeth of rapidly spinning brass
wheels and create certain sounds of speech. In that, he
was already on the road to creating Edison's phonograph.
By then it was clear that we could replicate vowels by
bowing various strings in various ways. But Hooke's
spinning wheels could also create many of the consonants
that'd so concerned Wilkins.
And here we find metaphor playing its inevitable
technological role. For voice and heart have always been
linked in our minds. We speak from the heart.
Good words are heartening, and so forth. While
Wilkins was asking how to create speech, his friend
William Harvey was explaining how blood moved through our
bodies. The same scientists who were trying to replicate
speech also struggled to build models of the human heart
and blood flow.
By the eighteenth century, we had a dizzying array of
moving models made for wealthy salons -- chirping birds
and harpsichord-playing ladies. And, in our time, every
child could have a Chatty Cathy doll. Yet, and this is
the oddest part, we held off even talking about
replicating the most essential human function.
Not until Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and
Charles Babbage conceived the programmable computer did
we seriously consider replicating human thought.
We've taken that idea very far, very fast. By now, we've
built a machine that can beat a grand master at chess. At
the same time, we have yet to build one that will speak
to me, in your voice.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where
we're interested in the way inventive minds work.