Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

The Tangle Of Technology And Trickery

It’s 1769 and Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and her court are watching the act of a French illusionist. Everyone is blown away by the performance, except for one man.

Wolfgang von Kempelen.

Wolfgang openly mocks the performance. Feeling insulted, the empress challenges him to create something better.

He gladly accepts.

A year later, Wolfgang returns with an invention that tops all illusions the world had ever seen.

The Mechanical Turk.

Which was essentially a life-sized mannequin, dressed in Ottomon robes and a turban, that sat behind a large wooden cabinet. Inside the cabinet was an intricate system of cogs and clockwork, and on top laid a chessboard.

Wolfgang claims his machine can beat anyone at a game of chess.

So he asks for the smartest mind in the room to face the Turk.

As the challenger steps forward, the sound of turning cogs fills the room and the Turk springs to life. A mechanical arm picks up a piece and plops it down two squares further.

Minutes later, the Turk wins. And the crowd goes wild.

Over the next 80 years, the automaton rolls over thousands of opponents. Including Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte.

Everyone was baffled by the Hungarian engineer’s invention. Is it magnets? Remote activation? A hidden chess-playing monkey?

Throughout the Turk’s life, nobody figures out its secret.

But much like the performance that inspired the automaton, the Turk was an illusion. The machinery inside the cabinet wasn’t the brains. It was a mechanical smoke screen.

The real brains belonged to a human chess master, hiding inside a secret compartment. 

Whenever Wolfgang opened the cabinet, the player could recline and hide from the audience. And only after the cabinet was shut, did he move into place.

Two hundred years ago, there was no computer that could outperform a human in chess.

And even today some menial tasks are still done better by humans than machines.

These people are known as Turkers.

And just as the Turk’s original operator worked in bad conditions. Turkers are also treated poorly.

Instead of earning pennies sewing garments, sorting coal and digging canals by hand. Turkers fill out questionnaires, transcribe audio files, or moderate flagged images for dimes.

Work that looks like it’s done by AI, is often still done by people. Just like the LinkedIn business card app was.

And so we come full circle. 

First humans posed as machines. Next humans built machines. Now humans pretend to be machines.

Sometimes technology is an illusion. And it fools us all.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach