The Mechanical


Imagine a world where early modern experiments with alchemy actually worked out. In this world a guild of alchemists was formed in the Hague in the seventeenth century and they used their skills to create new technologies powered by alchemy. Chief amongst them was the invention of a mechanical man (the Clakkers) capable of taking on much of the work previously done by humans. With this new technology the Dutch crown advanced its interests and maintained global hegemony for the next four hundred years. This is the basic premise of Ian Tregillis’ The Mechanical.

Counterfactual history, alchemical robots and geopolitical intrigue, all right up my alley, but not, I’ll admit, everyone’s cup of tea. So why am I writing about this book? Tregillis’ high concept novel explores a world in which robots are fundamental to the political economy. What is more it explores this through the lens of our past rather than our future, using the counterfactual to demonstrate the kinds of impacts that the dominance of robots might have on our world. We see a world where humans are pampered and the Clakkers do all the work. We also see a world where there has been little technological advancements beyond the Clakkers, in part because of the lack of incentive for innovation and in part because of the protectionist practices of the state backed alchemists guild.

All of this interests me because I’ve been thinking about robots a lot (see my recent discussion of Humans and the Rise of the Robots). The more I’ve thought about it, the more it seems to me that the growth of automation and robotic technologies is going to be critical to the way that we think about our careers in the future. Tregellis’ book explores how the growth of such technologies can help to entrench the exisiting power structures and empower those who have access to robotics against those who do not. This is a new way in which existing lines of power may be policed and extended.

Tregellis’ novel also explores the question of artificial intelligence and the singularity. The singularity describes the moment when machines achieve capabilities that outstrip humans. It has been the subject of a lot of fiction recently (most notably the movie Her and the TV show Humans). The question is what will happen once the machines can outthink us? It doesn’t require extreme paranoia to worry about this. People who are thinking about this more seriously than I am are starting to argue that we need to build limits into machines to create an inherent respect for human life (see Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics for example). The Mechanical explores this coming up with a particularly disturbing answer. In the novel sentient robots have their thinking and behaviour managed through a series of programmes which inflict pain on them when they refuse to do human bidding. It is an imagination of the ultimate internal chains through which slavery and oppression can be maintained. It is also a meditation on the nature of intelligence, humanity and free will.

It was a wrist watch, which she now brandished….”Tell me. Is this a slave… It was built for the sole purpose of serving humans. It is constructed on the same mechanical principles, containing cogs, springs, pinions and escapements like and Clakker.”

“Clakkers regularly demonstrate self-awareness and a capability for thought,” said Visser. “They express it in the way they go about their work, the way they answer questions, the way they find the optimal ways to prioritize and fulfill their geasa [programming]. Has your timepiece ever indicated the slightest consideration of its task?”

… “How do you know that you aren’t simply a Clakker made of meat rather than metal? Some squishy biological machine whose structure imbues it with a complex functioning and a delusional believe in its capability to determine its own course.” [pp.211-213]

In other words as robots approach us in their capabilities do we have to cede them rights? Do they force us to alter the metaphysical assumptions that we operate under? If they are more human, does it make us less human? This kind of philosophical speculation is starting to go beyond my pay grade, but it does raise some important theoretical and practical questions that we will have to answer as we build ever more complex machines.

I do believe that robots are already fundamentally transforming our world and our careers. I’m not sure whether we will see a genuine general artificial intelligence any time soon. But, I’m also not sure that we won’t. In the meantime I think that it is important that we continue to think about this and I’d definitely recommend The Mechanical as a good stimulus for some of this thinking.


One comment

  1. I loved reading this, thanks – the book sounds well worth a read too.

    I am often struck by the polarised view we take of robots – they are both scary (stealing the jobs, used in war zones, learning how to think faster, better, etc) and at the same time cute and seen as manufactured pets attributed with anthropomorphic qualities. The latest Star Wars film has a particularly cute robot pet in BB8, which will doubtless sell lots of toys. What both these extremes seem to do, is detract us from thinking about the impact of robotics on future careers and our everyday well-being.

    I learned on a recent visit to Japan, that the University of Tsukuba has a particular specialism in this area and some readers might like to find out what is happening there at …


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