In October of 1965, Ray Bradbury wrote “The Machine-Tooled Happyland,” his reflections on Disneyland. He begins by recalling his delight as a child with all things Disney and then his dismay at an essay in The Nation that equated Disneyland with Las Vegas. Here is Bradbury:
“Vegas’s real people are brute robots, machine-tooled bums.
Disneyland’s robots are, on the other hand, people, loving, caring and eternally good.”
“Snobbery now could cripple our intellectual development. After I had heard too many people sneer at Disney and his audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln in the Illinois exhibit at the New York World’s Fair, I went to the Disney robot factory in Glendale. I watched the finishing touches being put on a second computerized, electric- and air-pressure-driven humanoid that will “live” at Disneyland from this summer on. I saw this new effigy of Mr. Lincoln sit, stand, shift his arms, turn his wrists, twitch his fingers, put his hands behind his back, turn his head, look at me, blink and prepare to speak. In those fewmoments I was filled with an awe I have rarely felt in my life.
Only a few hundred years ago all this would have been considered blasphemous, I thought. To create man is not man’s business, but God’s, it would have been said. Disney and every technician with him would have been bundled and burned at the stake in 1600.”
Regarding that last thought, perhaps a bit of hyperbole. But there is something to it. Consider this recent fascinating Wilson Quarterly essay by Max Byrd, “Man as Machine.” Byrd discusses the popularity of automatons in Europe, particularly France, during the 18th and 19th centuries:
“Automates of various kinds have been around since antiquity, as toys or curiosities. But in the middle of the 19th century, in one of the odder artistic enthusiasms the French are famously prone to, a positive mania for automates like the dulcimer player swept the country. People flocked to see them in galleries, museums, touring exhibitions. Watchmakers and craftsmen competed to make more and still more impossibly complex clockwork figures, animals and dolls that would dance, caper, perform simple household tasks—in one case, even write a line or two with pen and ink. The magician Robert Houdin built them for his act. Philosophers and journalists applauded them as symbols of the mechanical genius of the age. Like so many such fads, however, the Golden Age of Automates lasted only a short time. By about 1890 it had yielded the stage to even newer technologies: Edison’s phonograph and the Lumière brothers’ amazing cinematograph.”
Back to Bradbury, the whole piece is a touching appreciation of Walt Disney (the man) and the possibilities of animatronics for the teaching of history:
“Emerging from the robot museums of tomorrow, your future student will say: I know, I believe in the history of the Egyptians, for this day I helped lay the cornerstone of the Great Pyramid.
Or, I believe Plato actually existed, for this afternoon under a laurel tree in a lovely country place I heard him discourse with friends, argue by the quiet hour; the building stones of a great Republic fell from his mouth.”
Read the whole thing. Together with Byrd’s piece it offers interesting background to questions such as those posed recently in an excerpt of Patrick Lin’s Robot Ethics in Slate: “The Big Robot Questions”. Read that too.