What happened on 13 June 1863 ?


Yes, the Second Battle of Winchester started on this date.  This was the most lopsided victory of the entire Civil War and opened the way for Gen. Robert E. Lee to invade Pennsylvania with the Battle of Gettysburg to follow the next month.  However, it has nothing to do with Robotics.

No, on that day Samuel Butler published “Darwin Among the Machines” in the Christchurch, New Zealand newspaper The Press.  The money quote from that day’s article:

“Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.”

So while Union and Confederates battled for control of The Shenandoah Valley, on the other side of the globe Butler sounded the first alarm that machines will evolve via Darwinian Selection to develop consciousness and eventually surpass their human creators.  It is impressive to think the seeds of the cutting edge thoughts on the Philosophy of Artificial Intelligence today were so clearly enunciated 150 years ago.  Such thoughts include:

  • Can a machine act intelligently? Can it solve any problem that a person would solve by thinking?
  • Are human intelligence and machine intelligence the same? Is the human brain essentially a computer?
  • Can a machine have a mind, mental states and consciousness in the same sense humans do? Can it feel how things are?

It’s no surprise that the talented Butler came from a line of English clergymen since many of the philosophic aspects of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics have been at the heart of Church Theology for over a thousand years (e.g. the soul, morality, free will, consciousness, human dignity, etc).  Also, it’s notable that Butler wrote his warning only four years after Charles Darwin seismic  On The Origin of Species published in 1859 after which intellectuals began to view organisms in the context of a constantly changing, evolving and adapting system of life.


Many today wonder if Artificial Intelligence (of which Robotics is only one manifestation) will eventually result in a machine with true intelligence, consciousness and even a soul.  Futurist Ray Kurzsweil has used Moore’s Law to predict machines will becomes sufficiently intelligent by 2029 to pass the Turing Test (personal interactions indistinguishable from human) and by 2045 surpass humans so that we must merge with them to keep up (Transhumanism).

A number of people like the physicists Stephen Hawkins and the neuroscientist Sam Harris argue from the other direction, that humans are basically biological robots and free will is merely an illusion.  The New Scientist runs a thought experiment about free will and the consequences of how we answer this question.

Science fiction writers and Hollywood have also produced a number of dark stories about the dehumanizing effects if future technology enables a strict biological determinism to override free-will and deny the potential of the human spirit (e.g. Blade Runner, Gattaca, Minority Report, etc).

RidleyScottBladeRunner04( Tyrell Corporation’s Nexus-6 Replicant Rachael, emotion enhancement via false memories )






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