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The Mechanical Turk: The 18th Century Chess Automaton
The story of its rise, fall and ongoing legacy
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Artificial intelligence has become increasingly pervasive in modern society, but of course, it wasn't always like this. It had to come from somewhere right? As a scientific field, AI, much like computer science is still very much in its infancy: as we're only now coming to terms with the complexity of the task we've set about trying to solve. But as we peruse the pages of history, it's clear that games have always been a part of the field.
Sure, we see that nowadays with the big corporations creating AI that can play Go, Dota 2, StarCraft 2, and even Minecraft. But the truth is that games are a consistent part of the past, present and future of Artificial Intelligence. Not just influencing the origins of the field, but often acting as a milestone for new and exciting innovations.
Today we begin our journey through The History of AI and Games with what is best described as some Grade-A aristocratic trolling.
Setting the Scene
We begin our journey in the 18th century, a time famous for the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the First Fleet arriving in Australia, the French Revolution, the American Revolutionary War and the Ten Great Campaigns of the Qing dynasty of China - y'know, all fun and upbeat stuff. Not to mention that a lot of the 18th century is also typified by the ongoing expansion of the British Empire and all the conflict and devastation that it wrought. Not that you'd know that if you studied history in British schools, but hey, what we don't know can't hurt us can it?
Kickin’ it in the 1700s means we're still in an era in which computers don't actually exist yet. In fact, what we consider nowadays to be a functional computing device wouldn't come about for another 150 years or so.
‘So what the hell are we doing here?’ I hear you ask. Well, for this inaugural episode, we're looking at something a little different. An inventor whose works ultimately may well have influenced the creation of computers as we know them, even though that wasn't their intent.
And it all started with a game of chess.
The Mechanical Turk
Our story centres on Wolfgang von Kempelen: born on the 23rd of January 1734 in Bratislava, Slovakia, back when it was known as Pressburg as part of the Habsburg Empire. After studying law and philosophy, Wolfgang found himself working as a civil servant of the crown from 1755 up until his retirement in 1798. Not the most extravagant of careers, but he was largely famous for his extra-curricular pursuits. His interests in maths and physics, combined with his social status, led to him inventing all sorts of machines and contraptions. Including the likes of steam engines, water pumps, a manually operated vocal synthesiser, a typewriter for the Viennese pianist Maria Theresia von Paradis, and even helped construct the water fountains that still exist at Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, Austria.
But Wolfgang's big claim to fame arose in 1770, with the unveiling of this contraption - 'der Schachtürke' or in English, The Mechanical Turk: a fully automated chess-playing machine that showed human-level intelligence, that could not only compete against and defeat humans but exhibited traits that suggested it was capable of high-level strategy.
Chess is of course one of the oldest board games in the Western world, and for many was considered one of the finest examples of human intelligence, "a game of pure thought involving no element of chance", as decreed by Stefan Zweig in his novella 'The Royal Game' published in 1941.
The reason for this reverence is that chess is a game of perfect information: meaning that you can see every piece on the board, you know the rules of every piece, and from this, you calculate the game tree. The game tree allows you to enumerate all future possibilities: every possible move for each player, at any time, for any piece currently on the board. Therefore, the best chess players can anticipate the outcomes, both good and bad, of both their turns and their opponents in the future.
So it comes as no surprise that it wowed audiences at its first unveiling at the aforementioned Schonbrunn Palace in the court of the Empress Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina, then ruler of the Habsburg dominions.
The device was as a unit, with the main cabinet measuring approximately 3.5 feet wide, 2 feet deep and 2.5 feet tall. The cabinet contained within the mechanisms of the chess board, with the playing surface which was fixed atop it. The chess board itself was designed with each piece having magnets, and the device could conceivably move pieces around using internal magnets placed underneath the board itself which helped keep them upright and retain the knowledge of their placement.
The machine was given the name the Mechanical Turk courtesy of the wooden player model on top of the unit. This model was a human-sized representation of a man, complete with a beard, wearing Ottoman clothing and sporting a turban. This, rather stereotypical representation of a Turkish nobleman, acted as the machine’s avatar and physically moved its own pieces. This added an extra level of ridiculousness to the proceedings, while as we'll see shortly, providing some useful misdirection to boot.
So yes, back to the unveiling. It's 1770, and we're in the court of the Austrian Empress, as von Kempelen presents to everyone the Mechanical Turk for the first time. He states that the device could defeat anyone in the court in a game of chess. To highlight its autonomy as a self-operating piece of machinery, von Kempelen opens up doors on the front and sides of the Turk’s main cabinet, highlighting an intricate series of cogs, levers and switches that are its internal makeup. Make no mistake ladies and gentlemen of the court, this is a machine built for victory.
Always leading with the first move, and playing in white, the Turk subsequently takes on its first opponent: Count Ludwig von Cobenzl: a courtier and advisor to the Empress. Over a period of 30 minutes, Cobenzl was defeated, and the Turk claimed its first of several victories it claimed on its first public exhibition.
Touring Success & Ownership Transfer
Following this inaugural display, the Turk became something of an international curiosity, and interest in having it tour to other locations increased. However, this was something that Von Kempelen resisted, often stating that the machine was going through repairs. It's been suggested that Von Kempelen was less interested in touring the device, and would rather focus on his other creative interests. Though it is equally plausible that he didn't want his secrets getting out.
In 1781, Von Kempelen was ordered to assemble the device and demonstrate it once again in Vienna by Emperor Joseph II, the son of Empress Maria Theresa. This was to be part of a state visit by Grand Duke Paul, the then Emperor of the Russian Empire. It proved to be a smash hit, and Von Kempelen perhaps reluctantly agreed at the behest of the Grand Duke Paul to have the device tour Europe. During which it travelled to the likes of Versailles, Paris, London, Leipzig and Amsterdam. Playing off and defeating notable figures such as Benjamin Franklin, who was the US Ambassador to France from 1776 to 1785.
As part of the performance, Von Kempelen would repeatedly open up the device for people to inspect it when on public display. In fact, it could even be stripped apart in front of everyone, revealing it to be a combination of cogs and levers. This was a critical part of each demonstration, given once the insides were demonstrated, nobody would question the actual behaviour when it was wound up to activate and began playing against random members of the audience. It didn't always win, but it didn't stop people being amazed by it.
With each new display, there was a growing concern that the device itself was not legitimate, and was in some way fooling attendees into thinking its mechanical capabilities were the result of computational intelligence, rather than some elaborate ruse. This became even more evident as the system was capable of having the Turk correct illegal moves made by opponents, as it would grab pieces that had been moved into illegal positions and would subsequently put them back. The Turk model itself would even nod to its opponent and even bow upon completion of a match. Thus implying a level of intelligence and knowledge that exceeds its origins.
The success of the Turk after its tour of Europe and a subsequent second round of dates could not be stymied even by the passing of its creator. While the details are inconclusive, it appears that the Turk largely sat untouched and unused in the closing years of Kempelen's life, and it's theorised he made several unsuccessful attempts to sell the device. On March 26th 1804, Wolfgang von Kempelen died at the age of 70. After which, the Mechanical Turk was open to the highest bidder.
The Turk remained under lock and key until its triumphant return in 1805, not long after the sale of the device to Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, an instruments builder from Germany for 10,000 francs ($28,000 in 2023 USD). Maelzel had in fact previously failed to buy the device from Kempelen for double that amount. All of which proves you shouldn't pre-order your games at launch and simply wait until they're heavily discounted.
Having now purchases the device, Maelzel knew of its secrets, and after some repairs needed to get it back on the road. It returned to touring the European courts, thus leading to its famed interaction with Emperor Napoleon I of France. Malzel even continued to modify and improve the machine’s workings and added a voice box for it to declare when it had put an opposing player in check. In fact, when Napoleon played against it during its second tour of Europe in 1809, he repeatedly made illegal moves to see how it would respond. And after the third attempt, the Turk ended the match by knocking all pieces off the board with its mechanical arm.
This all fed into the hype surrounding it, with many a detractor writing papers and articles accusing Maelzel and in turn Von Kempelen of fraud over the years. That it was nothing more than a sham. Yet nobody could ever seem to find proof of it all when it was showcased in public. Even Edgar Allan Poe was inspired by it, with his essay 'Maelzel's Chess Player' published in 1836 being one of the most famous written works about the device.
The Turk would later tour even farther afield, with trips to New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Virginia and even Canada between 1826 and the mid-1830s. And its journey came to an end in 1838, when Malzel, aged 66, died on a ship in the harbour of La Guaira in Venezuela, not long after a demonstration in Cuba, with the cause of death reported to be alcohol poisoning. With Malzel dead, the device itself was left in the hands of the ship’s captain. After exchanging hands some more through auctions and the like, it was left gathering dust in the Peale Museum in Baltimore, where it would later be destroyed in a fire in 1854.
The Truth Revealed
Now some of you already know this story, while others might seem baffled. If we had machines capable of defeating humans at chess in the late 1700s, how did it take another 200 years before we had the likes of Deep Blue - the first-ever computer chess champion?
Well, it's quite simple: the Mechanic Turk was nothing more than an elaborate hoax.
As mentioned earlier, it was a device complete with cogs, gears and levers but these were all intended to mislead. The doors of the device could be opened to see inside it, even through it, and reveal nothing untoward. But in fact, it contained a container at the very back of the device, in which a person was capable of fully sitting inside of it and then working the Turk from within. By using a combination of levers and pulleys, they could move the chess pieces on the tabletop using the Turk’s hand. With a corresponding internal chess board to help the operator inside know where each piece was and to play the game internally.
To further support the fiction, and make it all a sustainable enterprise. There was ventilation built in for the operator, an area for a candle to be placed and provide light (with the smoke coming out of the Turk turban which seems in pretty poor taste), and even for a set of brass discs on the side of the device with numbers on them that could be turned to make specific combinations. These discs were the primary mechanism for the operator to communicate to the presenter on the outside (be it Von Kempelen or Maelzel).
In order for the Turk to work, both Von Kempelen and later Maelzel required an operator: someone had to sit inside the Turk for hours at a time and compete at a reasonably high level of proficiency in a game of chess, while also operating the device itself. Over time it has subsequently been revealed that numerous high-ranking chess masters were in fact the operators of the Turk, including Johann Allgaier (both a Chessmaster and the author of the first chess handbook written in German), English grandmaster William Lewis and Jacques Francois Mouret (who later tutored King Louis Philippe I how to play chess).
And in fact, the circumstances of Maelzel's death could very well imply that the gig was up. While as stated it’s suggested he died of alcohol poisoning in Venezuela, it came mere days after the death of the then-operator William Schlumbuger who contracted and subsequently died from yellow fever on the trip with Maelzel to Cuba in 1838. In fact, there had already been publications that revealed some of the workings of the device, notably a French report in Le Magasin Picturesque dated 1834 that heavily implied Jaques Mouret was the source, looking to score a quick payday.
So look I hear you, "Tommy this has been a wonderful story, expertly told and all, but what on earth does any of this have to do with actual computer science, and in turn, artificial intelligence?"
As the Mechanical Turk toured the world, one of the many players it faced was Charles Babbage: a famous mathematician, engineer and inventor in his own right from the United Kingdom. Babbage faced off against the Turk in two matches in 1819, and subsequently conceded defeat in both instances. At the time, Babbage suspected that the Turk was a hoax, and while he was correct in this assertion he didn't join others in trying to publicly expose the device and its owners. It seems instead, that Babbage had other issues on his mind.
Charles Babbage is famous in computer science history for two of his most ambitious, yet never fully conceived projects. First, there was the Difference Engine: a machine that could compute values of polynomial mathematical functions automatically. Meanwhile, his second machine, the Analytical Engine was a significantly more complex device. Sadly neither device was ever successfully manufactured in full. But the theories presented had an influence on many subsequent mathematicians such as Alan Turing, arguably the forefather of what we now call artificial intelligence.
But did the chance encounter with the Turk influence Babbage's work? Perhaps. While developing the Analytical Engine in 1833, Babbage met and subsequently collaborated with a young aspiring mathematician: August Ada King Byron, who would later marry in 1835 and become the Right Honourable Countess Ada Lovelace. Lovelace was the first to see the potential of the Analytical Engine becoming a general-purpose computing device, where it could be configured - or more appropriately, programmed - to handle a variety of different tasks. This subsequently impacted Babbage's own interpretation.
In 1864, Babbage spoke of the idea of creating a 'mathematical notation', that would allow the Analytical Engine to solve different types of problems. In essence, a programming language. Critically, he also wrote:
“After much consideration I selected for my test the contrivance of a machine that should be able to play a game of purely intellectual skill successfully such as… chess."
And so there we have it. A tenuous link but nonetheless one I can hang on to as I plead my argument, that creating an entire episode about the Mechanical Turk was a valid decision to make. This attempt to fool the world with a fake chess player, could very well have influenced breakthroughs not just in automated chess players, but computer science as a whole.
In the Modern Day
Fast forward to the modern day, and you'd think that the name Mechanical Turk would be something of a red flag: a term that raises alarm bells if you ever heard it used in context. That someone is trying to pull a fast one and shill some nonsense product that doesn't work as advertised.
And well... ugh, yeah that's exactly what they did.
Nowadays, Mechanical Turk is largely known as a product available under Amazon Web Services. MTurk as it is sometimes known, is a crowdsourcing online marketplace launched in 2005 where companies and individuals can outsource a particular job or process so that someone can do it for them. You post the work and then don't have to worry about how it's done or who does it, and you pay them once the job is complete and the data is provided.
So, much like the original device it's hiding the reality that humans are in the loop and doing most of the work while selling it as what is ultimately a software service. Which, yeah... sounds pretty sketchy. Unsurprisingly this has proven to be a nightmare of low-pay and abusive working conditions that is largely emblematic of all the other gig economies that have subsequently surfaced. But hey it's Amazon, in for a penny, in for a pound.
The idea for MTurk stems from a patent submitted to the US Patent Office in 2001 called 'Hybrid Machine/Human Computing Arrangement' in which "humans assist a computer to solve particular tasks, allowing the computer to solve the tasks more efficiently". In fact, when Amazon decided to take this idea and move it forward, they coined the term "Artificial artificial intelligence" to help market it. Because they know full well that what they're offering isn't AI, but they'd really like to pretend and market it like it is.
So yeah, calling it the Mechanical Turk is sadly incredibly apt.
The history of computing and AI as a whole is a weird and fascinating one, and one where games have an intrinsic part in how it all happened. I hope you've enjoyed this inaugural journey through the History of AI and Games, and we'll be back to look at some more weird and quirky events that defined the field as we know it.
If you take away one thing from all of this, it's that people have been lying about their creations achieving state-of-the-art artificial intelligence since the very beginning. In fact, the AI Hype has been a trait of the field for almost 200 years before we actually came up with the name artificial intelligence. Is that a good thing? Probably not. But it really does highlight how desperate some people are to look smart in a public forum.
And on that note, thanks for reading, and we'll see you again in a future episode!
Sources & Related Reading
Tom Standage (1 April 2002). The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous 19th Century Chess-Playing Machine. Walker. ISBN 978-0-8027-1391-9.
Hybrid machine/human computing arrangement, US Patent Office