By now, most of us know that the history of computing machines goes pretty far back—all the way to the ancient world, as the Antikythera mechanism shows. Devices such as the chess-playing Turk and the clockwork duck that could eat and defecate make clear that the same is true for robots and other automata. Both of those happen to have been hoaxes, but even they illustrate that our interest in simulated creatures is not newfound. (Incidentally, a short and lively book by literary critic Hugh Kenner called The Counterfeiters, published in the late 60s, discusses some of these simulacra; it’s where I first learned of them.) The recent film Ex Machina put me in mind of this historical question, and it was easy to think of the Pygmalion and Galatea story as one long-ago antecedent and the golem legend as another. Unsurprisingly, there’s more to it than that, and this article in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, by Daniel Mendelsohn, makes clear that “We have been dreaming of robots since Homer.”
The article is in part a commentary on the movies Her and Ex Machina, and it discusses the entirety of their stories, so if you’re concerned to avoid spoilers, you should read Mendelsohn’s piece only after you’ve seen them. Though it’s not intended as a compendium, Mendelsohn touches on enough treatments of androids that I was a little surprised he didn’t discuss Metropolis, whose robotic woman goes against the common narrative of rebellion. Another conceivable counterexample that he passed over—probably because it’s too far off his tack—is the lovely but solipsistic Björk-bot in Chris Cunningham’s music video for “All Is Full of Love,” a work that leaves the human world behind altogether. And I disagree with him on a point or two with regard to Ex Machina. Nonetheless, Mendelsohn’s essay is by far the most sensible and sensitive reading of Her and Ex Machina that I’ve found.