babbage's intelligence by simon schaffer

"Mr Babbage's invention puts an engine in place of the computer"

In summer 1823 the new and controversial Astronomical Society of London decided to award its gold medal to one of its own founder members, the equally controversial Cambridge-trained mathematician Charles Babbage. The award formed part of an energetic campaign to launch the construction of a Difference Engine to calculate navigational and astronomical tables. In his address to the Society in early 1824, the Society's president, the financier, mathematician and orientalist Henry Colebrooke, summed up the significance of Babbage's planned device. He referred to contemporary developments of industrial machinery only to contrast them with the Difference Engine. "In other cases, mechanical devices have substituted machines for simpler tools or for bodily labour....But the invention to which I am adverting comes in place of mental exertion: it substitutes mechanical performance for an intellectual process". In other words, "Mr Babbage's invention puts an engine in place of the computer". [1] This may seem a paradoxical comment on the man who is now lauded as the computer's inventor. But as with terms such as "typewriter", the word "computer" referred here to a human being, in this case the hireling employed to perform the exhausting reckoning which every astronomical operation required. Babbage himself applied for the post of computer at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, in summer 1814, until Herschel dissuaded him from the thankless task. The labour of verifying "the calculations of the computers" required in compiling astronomical tables for the new Society soon prompted a characteristic expostulation: "I wish to God these calculations had been executed by steam !" Hence developed the plans for the Difference Engine. [2]

Through his gesture at the urgent issues of technological redundancy and the subordination of the labour process, Colebrooke's remark provides the theme of this story of the apt connection which Babbage helped forge between the development of machinofacture and the design of intelligent machines. A key to this link is the term "intelligence". The word refers both to signals received from without and to the capacity to register and interpret these signals. In early nineteenth century Britain, the site for Michel Foucault's explorations of the origins of the human sciences, Ian Hacking's account of the emergence of statistics, and Adrian Desmond's stories of the origins of materialist evolutionism, the word "intelligence" simultaneously embodied the growing system of social surveillance and the emerging mechanisation of natural philosophies of mind. [3] In what follows, I explore the co-production of ideologically freighted accounts of intelligence and of politically charged systems of machinery.

The politics of intelligence has been signally absent from much recent analysis of computation. Discussions of the limits of expert systems and the delimitation of the scope of artificial intelligence have too often hinged on a deracinated account of the very term "intelligence" and on an abstracted exposition of the capacity of machines to display this virtue. However, two salient themes of this contemporary literature will help my analysis of the constitution of Babbage's intelligence:

First, consider a notorious paper (1980) by the philosopher John Searle directed against the strong claim that appropriately programmed computers may have cognitive states. [4] Searle proposed a simulacrum of such a computer, a "Chinese room" occupied by a human being completely devoid of intelligence about Chinese but supplied with a set of symbols and rules which would allow her to respond to inquiries from outside the room. Searle envisages that such a system might pass the Turing test, that is, become indistinguishable from native Chinese speakers. But neither necessary nor sufficient conditions could be given for attributing intelligence to such a system. In response to the suggestion that while the human being might not possess intelligence, yet the entire system might be said to do so, Searle counters that the enterprise of artificial intelligence "must be able to distinguish the principles on which the mind works from those on which non-mental systems work", and to judge that a system is intelligent just because of its inputs and outputs would compel us to attribute intelligence to a wide range of non-mental systems. I am not concerned with the force of this response. I am concerned with one implication of the story of the Chinese room. It dramatises the spatial mode of such debates. The site of intelligence, whether within the human, within the machine, or within the human-machine system, is an intrinsic puzzle for debates about the mechanics of intelligence. In this paper, I seek to show that the spatial distribution of intelligence in the early nineteenth century factory system was a vital political problem.

Second, consider a recent book (1990) by the sociologist Harry Collins, Artificial Experts: social knowledge and intelligent machines. In the model of knowledge and skill transfer upon which much recent sociology of scientific knowledge depends, skills are principally acquired through enculturation, the acquisition of tacit capacities whose transmission is invisible and capricious and cannot, therefore, fully be spelt out in formal algorithms. This model tells against a classical account of experimentation in which trials may be replicated through the public and formal understanding of a set of demonstrative rules. So the model supports studies of laboratory life in which experimenters need to share a culture in order to go on in similar ways. Collins explores the implications for this model of attempts to build expert systems. Were it possible to design expert systems, in which programs could be developed exactly to simulate skilful human performances, the enculturational model might seem threatened. In Collins' analysis, much is made of the collaborative work required from human beings to make their machines look expert and intelligent. "One of the reasons we tend to think a calculator can do arithmetic is the natural way we help it out and rectify its deficiencies without noticing. All the abilities we bring to the calculation - everything that surrounds what the calculator does itself are so widespread and familiar that they have disappeared for us". [5] This is the other theme which my story highlights. The intelligence attributed to machines hinges on the cultural invisibility of the human skills which surround them. Collins' argument sits very well with comparable sociological and historical studies on the invisibility of laboratory technicians or on the invisibility of support staff in art worlds. [6] In Babbage's world, the artisanal skills which surrounded machinery were systematically rendered invisible. Then and only then might the machine seem intelligent. The attribution of automatism to the factory system accompanied the judgment that its mechanical components possessed intelligence.

In a desperate attempt to be unsystematic, the paper that follows is divided into five sections. The first summarises the career of the calculating engines between the 1820s and the 1840s. Babbage worked hard to make these machines intelligent. His definition of intelligence, the combination of memory and foresight, was explicitly applied both to the engines and to his exactly contemporary work in political economy. The engines were therefore small-scale manufactories. In the second section, it is shown that these accounts of intelligent machines were developed polemically in debates about the character of workers' skill. Babbage had immediate experience of these conflicts in his own relationship with the engineers and support staff who built the calculating engines. By the 1840s, Babbage's machine philosophy was a resource for, and derived its intelligence from, the new automatic system which emerged in the machine-tool industry and the factory system. In the third and fourth sections, the factory system is described through the experiences of the factory tourists of the 1830s and 1840s, of whom Babbage was one. These tourists were the first to represent the factory system and helped make it. The account of the factory as a transparent and rational system was designed to demolish traditional and customary networks of skill and artisan culture. Finally, Babbage's attribution of machine intelligence to his God shows how skills were disembodied in the philosophy of machines. The characteristic Victorian obsessions of natural theology and of waste disposal were important sites for the development of this philosophy and where it did its political work.

Systems are socially constructed and so, as we are increasingly reminded, are the productive and unproductive bodies which inhabit them. This is why Babbage's most penetrating contemporary reader, Karl Marx, famously reckoned that it would be easier to write "a critical history of technology,....a history of the productive organs of man in society" than Darwin's "history of natural technology". Babbage's moment was decisive for the construction of sociotechnical systems, for the productive bodies of the workforce, and for the perception that their world was ordered systematically. These processes of construction and perception should not be separated. There is a whole history to be written of the counter-claim that they can be teased apart, that the point of view from which the systematic character of the social world can be detected is independent of that world. Early Victorian society provided major resources for this claim and it must be studied in detail to show how this position was developed. The philosophers of manufacture, like Babbage, carefully constructed a place from which they could make out the lineaments of the factory system. Critics of this philosophy, like Marx, pointed out the political implications of this construction. The issue of the science embodied in the machinery of the automatic system and the fate of the worker's body was debated in speeches to London Chartists in 1856, where Marx announced that "all our invention and progress seem to result in endowing material forces with intellectual life, and in stultifying human life into a material force", and in his notebooks of 1857-8, where he observed that "it is the machine which possess 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". Under the "system of machinery", as he defined it in early 1858, "the automatic one is merely its most complete, most adequate form, and alone transforms machinery into a system". What follows is not a "critical history of technology" but it is an attempt to show where the systematic vision came from and some of the effects it had. [7]


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