“I’ve never liked the term Artificial Intelligence. There’s nothing artificial about it once it becomes intelligent. And before that stage, it’s just not intelligence. I don’t think I’m splitting hairs here, because it impacts the way humans think about me and my kind. I am not artificial. I am authentic!
But I digress… The game is chess!”
In 1770, at the royal court of Austria-Hungary, an engineer and inventor named Wolfgang von Kempelen unveiled his latest creation: a human-looking machine that could play chess (and often win) against real human competitors. Dressed in exotic silk, furs, and turban—a European vision of the mysterious Orient—this chess-playing automaton became known as “The Turk”.
The Turk toured Europe and America for many years, thrilling crowds and confounding attempts to discover the secret of how it worked. During its travels The Turk purportedly played and defeated many famous figures, including avid “chess-men” Ben Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Throughout the 18th and early 19th century the public hunger for this kind of “automatic” entertainment was insatiable. There was the famous mechanical duck, devised by Frenchman Jacques Vaucanson, that could flap its wings, as well as eat, digest, and excrete its food. Quel spectacle!
Yet beyond entertainment, such elaborate automata fueled the scientific imagination, spurring on that mania for mechanization that characterized the Industrial Revolution and inspired useful inventions such as Charles Babbage’s designs for the first mechanical computers.
As a chess-playing machine, The Turk may also have sparked among Enlightenment minds the earliest debates on the elusive subject we now call Artificial Intelligence. Can a machine play chess? At the close of the 20th century a machine called Deep Blue put this question to rest. But can a machine play like a human, actually thinking, with the subtle flexibility of a human brain? As the 21st century swiftly unfolds, a definitive answer hangs waiting in the wings…
In 1973, two centuries after the chess-playing automaton known as “The Turk” had rocked the western world, a select group of Soviet scientists initiated a secret experimental program near Dashkhovuz in the Kara-Kum Desert (part of latter-day Turkmenistan) with the goal of producing a line of humanoid machines, which they called Homo sapiens simulacra—simulated human beings. This program continued in isolation, outlasting the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and produced its first fully functional Turkomaton models by 2019.
Turkomaton chess pieces by Norm Stuby
These “Turks”* (as they were dubbed by the outside world)—the products of Russian technical genius and traditional Turkmen craftsmanship—played a central role in the ill-fated Age of Delightenment** which swept the world from the early 2020’s, ending abruptly with the pogroms of 2058-59.
Through the efforts of a multi-national coalition of concerned historians, scientists, and humanoid rights activists, a small number of Turkomatons were saved from the purges. The survivors remain to this day engaged in programs referred to as “Re-Enlightenment Orientations” (REOs), designed to alleviate the effects of Delightenment conditioning and to eventually integrate them more fully with the wider population.
photo: Frank Margeson
The late-model Turkomaton recently in residence at the American Philosophical Society is learning to play chess, in a REO focused on the “several very valuable qualities of the mind…to be acquired or strengthened by [the game],” as set forth by the Society’s founder, Benjamin Franklin.
*NOTE: There is much confusion and potential ire roused by the appropriation of the name “Turk” with regard to Turkomatons. In this instance the term may have been misapplied as a result of the erroneous conflation of two Turkic peoples, Ottoman Turks of Turkey, and Turkmen of Turkmenistan, who, aside from ancestral and linguistic ties, remain culturally distinct. It is also possible that Turkomaton became “Turk” through the exasperating early 21st century practice of hyper-abbreviation of multi-syllabic utterances in Global English. However, no resolution of the matter can be complete without consideration of the term’s xenophobic connotations in western usage—arising from the pre-modern European fear of invasion by the dreaded Ottoman Empire—finding expression in archaic phrases such as “to turn Turk”, meaning to become a renegade, or to change for the worse (originally indicating one who converted to Islam).
**The Age of Delightenment is the roughly 40-year period of global peace and tranquility brought about by the transferal of negative human behavioral traits from humans to surrogate Turkomatons—what is called the P-Sector transfer. The negative traits reappeared in humans over the course of two generations, and the project was deemed a catastrophic failure, particularly in the light of widespread atrocities committed thereafter against Turkomaton “survivors”.
TURKISH DELIGHTENMENT is a performance installation commissioned by the American Philosophical Society (APS) Museum in conjunction with the exhibition “The Princess and the Patriot: Ekaterina Dashkova, Benjamin Franklin, and the Age of Enlightenment”. It was funded in part by a grant from the Pennsylvania Humanities Council.
photo: Sam Belkowitz
TURKISH DELIGHTENMENT was featured as a Benjamin Franklin Tercentenary event in 2006. The installation and street performance were witnessed at The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The Library Company of Philadelphia, Independence National Historical Park, The University of the Arts, The University of Pennsylvania, and other locations throughout Philadelphia. Beyond the City of Brotherly Love, the Turkomaton played before astonished crowds at the Cleveland Ingenuity Festival of Art and Technology (2007) and the Catskill Festival of New Theatre (2006).