The Industry

The Box That AI Lives In

Dig through the annals of technological history, and you’ll find illuminating stories that offer cautionary lessons about the future.

Listen to Secret History of the Future via Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google Play.

It’s 1783, and Paris is gripped by the prospect of a chess match. One of the contestants is François-André Philidor, who is considered the greatest chess player in Paris, and possibly the world. Everyone is so excited because Philidor is about to go head-to-head with the other biggest sensation in the chess world at the time.

But his opponent isn’t a man. And it’s not a woman, either. It’s a machine.

This story may sound a lot like Garry Kasparov taking on Deep Blue, IBM’s chess-playing supercomputer. But that was only a couple of decades ago, and this chess match in Paris happened more than 200 years ago. It doesn’t seem like a robot that can play chess would even be possible in the 1780s. This machine playing against Philidor was making an incredible technological leap—playing chess, and not only that, but beating humans at chess.

In the end, it didn’t quite beat Philidor, but the chess master called it one of his toughest matches ever. It was so hard for Philidor to get a read on his opponent, which was a carved wooden figure—slightly larger than life—wearing elaborate garments and offering a cold, mean stare.

It seems like the minds of the era would have been completely blown by a robot that could nearly beat a human chess champion. Some people back then worried that it was black magic, but many folks took the development in stride. It’s useful to remember that, at the time, the Montgolfier brothers had recently taken to the air in their first balloons—this is the 1780s, and people had previously thought that flying machines with people on them would be impossible.

There’d also been this strange year without summer. We now know that a volcano had gone off in Iceland, but the people in Western Europe just saw these weird clouds and the sun going red like blood. A lot of strange things were happening around the time that. When the chess-playing machine arrived in Paris during that period, in particular, people could be forgiven for thinking things that they once thought were impossible in the past might in fact be possible.

And that’s kind of like the world we live in now. New technologies come out every day, and we just say, “Oh sure, of course we can talk to this box on our kitchen counter and have it play any song we want it to.” If you went back in time just 15 years and said, “Look I’ve got this little rectangle, it goes in my pocket and you speak French to it and it translates it, or you can summon a vehicle to take you anywhere,” it may seem like magic. But we’ve all gotten used to it very quickly. And in fact, that phone in your pocket can now beat the human world chess champion.

Debates about the hottest topic in technology today—artificial intelligence—didn’t starts in the 1940s, with people like Alan Turing and the first computers. It turns out that the arguments about AI go back much further than you might imagine. The story of the 18th-century chess machine turns out to be one of those curious tales from history that can help us understand technology today, and where it might go tomorrow. It’s why Slate and the Economist have launched the new podcast the Secret History of the Future.

The show digs through these old chapters from the annals of technological history to see what we can we learn from them. To find out what really happened between Philidor and that chess machine (and there’s a twist), listen to Episode 1 here. In later episodes, we’re going to look at the first cyberattack, which happened in the 1830s, and find out how the Victorians invented virtual reality. But we’re starting here, with the tale of this intelligent machine that amazed Mr. Philidor.