Mysticism and Machines

E.R. Truitt revisits John Cohen’s 1963 article on the history of automata and the quest to recreate humanity.

A scene from Karel Čapek's 1920 play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots), showing three robots.John Cohen's 1963 essay, Automata in Myth and Science, tantalisingly introduces some of the beguiling objects and strange stories that appear, just a few years later, in his monograph Human Robots in Myth and Science (1966). In both, Cohen explores humanity's longstanding fascination with the idea of making artificial people, stretching back to the Babylonians and encompassing not only Ancient Greek culture and its heirs, but also ancient Chinese and Indian culture. In everything from the Biblical teraphim (mummified oracular heads) and Haephestos's handmaidens, endowed with speech and sentience, to the Chinese practitioners of khwai shuh, who sought to bring images and statues to life to serve as slaves, Cohen's focus is on the mystical origins behind the search for perfect human imitation.

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