Turkish Delight

Sour grapes aside, Kasparov’s defeat, to many people, seemed like just another way in which human achievement was being overtaken by cool mechanical efficiency. Yet few people realized that this sense of electronic ennui had its antecedent 200 years prior, when a chess-playing robot known as “the Turk” confounded observers throughout Europe and America. In his intriguing new book The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess Playing Machine, Tom Standage traces the Turk’s history and defines its legacy. Standage, the technology correspondent for The Economist, has written a fast-paced, entertaining techno-history that, while overshooting its mark a few times, succeeds on the whole.

The Turk, designed at the behest of Holy Roman empress Maria Theresa, was the most famous in a series of automata that captivated kings and savants across the Continent during the 18th and 19th centuries. Built to perform a wide range of activities—from playing a trumpet to simulating the digestive system of a duck—these automata, powered by intricate systems of gears and camshafts, were miracles of craftsmanship and mechanical skill.

Yet the Turk was unique in the robotic ranks because it appeared capable of rational, independent thought. It consisted of a figure clad in a turban and flowing, “Turkish-style” robes, seated in front of a large chest, on top of which was a chessboard. When challenged to a game, the machine’s operator would wind a key in the side of the chest, and, with a whirl of gears, the Turk would grab its piece and make the first move. The Turk easily won most of the games it played. If its opponent made a false move, the machine would shake its head and return the offending piece to its starting position; if the false move was made again, it would sweep its arm across the table, scattering the pieces and ending the game.

The Turk was an instant success, and word of its prowess quickly spread across Europe. During exhibitions, people crowded into lecture halls to see the storied machine and try to find out just how it worked. Most people apparently harbored no illusions that the Turk was a genuine automaton, and attended the shows in order to discover by what sleight-of-hand the operator was controlling the machine. The Turk drew crowds in Europe for 40 years—and when Europe grew tired of the machine, its operator packed it off to America, where a whole new world waited to discover its wonders.

During the Turk’s travels, it came into contact with several notable historical figures, and Standage is quick to describe the ways in which these people’s experiences with the Turk impacted their lives. Some of these stories work and some of them don’t. It’s believable when Standage claims that Edgar Allan Poe’s unique writing style was first developed in an expose Poe wrote about the Turk. But when he attributes the idea for something like Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, a mechanical ancestor of the modern computer, to the Turk’s influence on young Babbage’s mind, it smacks of ill-considered authorial postulate rather than credible research.

All in all, it’s an interesting story. The book reads like a slightly insane travelogue, populated by carnies, charlatans, and dreamers, all seeking to cash in on the automaton craze in one way or another. Standage is at his best in describing the era’s various automata and the characters that exhibited them. Less convincing is his assertion that these automata served as the vanguard of a new industrial age.

Standage, who also authored 1999’s The Victorian Internet, specializes in linking the technologies of the past with the discoveries of the present. And, as in his previous book, the connections he makes, while novel, are not always justified. Standage theorizes that these marvelous machines were the true progenitors of the Industrial Revolution: “At the intersection between entertainment, technology, and commerce, automata allowed new ideas to flow from one field to another and acted as a catalyst for further innovation.” Now, some would say that population growth, mobility of labor, and the expansion of capital were the main factors behind the Industrial Revolution. But, hey, if Standage wants to attribute it to chess-playing robots, that’s his prerogative.

Standage wants to pass off the Turk as a primitive form of artificial intelligence, a forerunner to Deep Blue. While it’s an interesting concept, I’m not sure if the comparison is entirely valid: Deep Blue, after all, was actually run by circuitry and programming; the Turk was run by a man in a box. Yet it is interesting to note that the Turing test—the modern-day standard for measuring artificial intelligence—confirms a computer’s intelligence based upon the skill with which it deceives inquisitors. If there’s one thing (besides playing chess) that the Turk was good at, it was deception. And the emotions elicited by Deep Blue and the Turk are curiously similar.

Echoes of Kasparov’s sputtering excuses are heard in the commentary of one of the Turk’s critics, who proclaimed that the possibility “that an AUTOMATON can be made to move the Chessmen properly . . . is UTTERLY IMPOSSIBLE.”‘ One can’t help but hear a note of latent fear in this vehement denial. Perhaps the speaker was struck by an all-too-modern feeling that, while the mechanically digesting ducks of the world were well and good, an automaton that usurped what had previously been man’s most characteristic province—the brain—hit a little bit too close to home?

As we race forward into an age where the potential for technological advancement is rivaled only by the potential amount of fear that might be caused by those advances, it is good to have some historical grounding. In The Turk, Tom Standage has written a highly entertaining book that, all in all, succeeds in its goal of convincing us that machine intelligence is limited, but man’s cunning knows no bounds.

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Justin Peters

Justin Peters is a correspondent for Slate and a contributing editor at the Columbia Journalism Review.