Chickens lay eggs in a variety of sizes. We like to sell them in uniform boxes of small, medium, and large eggs.
Before machines, imagine how tedious it must have been for poultry-men and poultry-women to sort hundreds of eggs each day. “How lucky is the farmer who uses mules and plows,” they would say, “and how lucky is the miller, whose job is done by the mill.”
“How else would we fill egg boxes with eggs of the correct size” they’d conclude, nodding at each other, “if we didn’t check them ourselves?”
For some, this nod would come with the sad acceptance of being condemned to a Sisyphean task. For others, it came with the dignity of doing a job that resisted the machines.
As often happens, boredom led to inspiration. I like to think that, one morning, after the 200th egg of the day, a chicken farmer had the following realization.
“Yes, we humans are really good at sorting eggs, but we are not necessary at all! Nature itself can distinguish small, medium, and large eggs. All we need to do is build a machine that allows nature to make the decision, in the same way that it decides an apple should leave the branch it is attached to and fall to the ground.”
While pondering this proposition, the chicken farmer would hold a pair of eggs of different sizes, one in each hand, and rhythmically throw them up in the air. Given his experience, he’d be able to throw and catch them without looking.
Eureka! Suddenly he would realize the size of eggs was directly related to another property machines could deal with more easily: their weight. At last, there was a way to sort eggs without looking at them. He would then assemble an inclined plane, three seesaw swings (with a different weight at each end), and a conveyor belt into the first ever Egg-Sorting Machine. The conveyor belt would bring each egg to the swings, in turns. Whenever an egg’s weight was greater than that of the seesaw it was resting on, it would be deposited onto the inclined plane and roll into a group of similarly sized eggs.
Behold: Artificial intelligence!
Not only was the machine doing a task only humans were deemed capable of, it was completing that task with speed and accuracy far greater than a farmer could manage. Some farmers would receive this machine with unrestrained enthusiasm, others with skepticism, disappointment, and fear:
“What a devilish machine!”
“Unless it takes the eggs from the nest to the box, it is of no use to me.”
“You are going to put farmers out of work.”
“Hand-sorted eggs are surely better; people will see the difference.”
“Machine-sorted eggs will alienate farmers from their work.”
“What if the machine goes on a rampage? What if the controls break and the machine sorts eggs faster than you can unload it, the inclined plane collapses, and you are killed by an eggslide?”
You might be amused by the egg-sorting-machine doomsayers. You might even admit the possibility of death by eggslide while still questioning claims of this machine’s intelligence.