Thursday, March 3, 2011

Babbage located intelligence in the Mind, not the attentive crafting Body.

‘Cogito ergo sum’
So said Rene Descartes in his Discourse on Method. By this statement, Descartes was reducing existence to thinking, which is realm of the mind. The problem of whether intelligence is located in the mind or the bodily instruments has its roots in the dichotomy of mind and body created as a direct consequence of Cartesian reductionism.
Charles Babbage [1791 – 1871], British mathematician and inventor, was a pioneer in the field of computing machines and is remembered for his inventions –the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine, early forerunners of the computer. He envisioned the world’s first intelligent machines and his theories laid the foundations for ‘artificial intelligence’.
The Industrial revolution had brought in its wake a new system of manufacturing on a large scale with the help of machinery. The domestic system of production that relied almost entirely on manual labour and skills had been replaced by the factory system. Babbage’s moment in Victorian England was decisive for the construction of socio-technical systems, for the productive bodies of the work force and for the perception that their world was ordered systematically. Working class interests appealed to traditional custom, in which skill was recognised as something inherent in the persons of the workers themselves. So the issue of science and intelligence embodied in the automatic system and the fate of the workers’ body was constantly debated. As Marx pointed out ‘it is the machine which possesses skill and strength in place of the worker, is itself the virtuoso with a soul of its own in the mechanical laws acting through it. ‘
Babbage, the Cambridge trained mathematician was awarded the Gold Medal of the Astronomical Society for launching the Difference Engine to calculate navigational and astronomical tables. Unlike mechanical devices that substituted machines for simpler tools or for bodily labour, this was expected to substitute mechanical performance for an intellectual process. The invention put ‘an engine in place of the computer’- the computer here referring to a human being – a person employed to ‘compute’- to perform exhaustive calculations. Babbage’s ideas for intelligent machines dominated his career. He worked hard to make his machines intelligent. He used the phrase ‘the engine knows’ –to describe its predetermined move from one calculation to another. In response to criticism from contemporaries that the machines are only automatons, he replied that they may be automatons, but they carried intelligence. Intelligence was incorporated in their mechanisms.

Babbage 'helped forge a connection between the development of machinofacture and the design of intelligent machines. The term ‘intelligence’ is the key to this link. It refers both to signals received from without and to the capacity to register and interpret such signals.’ To make machines look intelligent, it was necessary to render their sources of power- the labour force- invisible. Babbage’s definition of intelligence, the combination of memory and foresight, was applied to his philosophical theory. His philosophy of machines was a resource for and derived its strength from the new automatic system which emerged in the machine tool industry and the factory system. The factory was a rational and transparent system, designed to demolish traditional and customary networks of skill and artisan culture. The lineaments of the factory system were explained through the medium of theology which was an indispensable medium in the Victorian era. According to the proponents of this philosophy, the factory system was a product of intelligent reason and was thus providential and virtuous. ‘The work force itself was only judged a producer of value to the extent that it matched precisely the capacities of the machines.’ The two qualities attributed to the intelligence of machines were foresight and memory. Babbage showed that these features of machine intelligence were all that were needed to understand the rule of God. Humans and the entire universe are machine-like .They are calculable and subject to rules. Higher laws, which are not fully comprehended by humans, govern the world. ‘The calculability and mechanical quality of both humans and machines are merely instances of the calculability and mechanical quality of the universe itself.’ The technical world though created by human beings rests on natural laws.

Babbage’s definition of intelligence, the combination of memory and foresight, were applied to both his inventions –the Difference engine and the Analytical engine. They also characterise his image as the unique author of the machines. ’They embodied his control over the engine, while they disembodied the skills and camouflaged the work force on which they depended.’ In Babbage’s philosophy, intelligence thus resides in the mind, not in the body- not in craft or practice . It resides in the minds of inventors, not craftsmen.


1. 'The Ideology of the Machine and the Spirit of the Factory'-Andrew Zimmerman
2. 'Babbage's Intelligence'-Simon Schaffer

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