Credit: Priceonomics

Did a Dancing Robot Lead to the Invention of the Computer?

Steven Johnson, author of ten books and editor of numerous online publications including How We Get to Next, has a new book on the way. The book is called Wonderland and it explores how important breakthroughs in science and technology often resulted from “play,” or from playful engagement with things that were enjoyable and fun. Johnson just released the first in a series of podcasts associated with the book.

The first Wonderland podcast deals with the subject of robotics and social robots in particular. The podcast examines Charles Babbage’s boyhood fascination with a diminutive mechanical dancer that he saw at Merlin’s Mechanical Museum in late 1700’s.

Credit: Arcade Sushi

Babbage was captivated by the dancer’s human-like, graceful movements. Johnson postulates that the young Babbage’s interest in the mechanical dancer was a motivating force that led him to pursue the creation of a mechanical computer as an adult.

Johnson interviews both Ken Goldberg, Director of the People and Robots Initiative at UC Berkeley and Kate Darling, Research Specialist at MIT Media Lab.

Goldberg makes the interesting statement that robots often act on young minds as a “gateway drug” to a lifelong interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Young people are captivated by robots, especially those that seem to have personalities, and this fascination blossoms into a love of science.

Darling notes that humans are very inclined to see robots as autonomous and to project intent on their actions, even when we know that robots are non-sentient machines. We are prone to develop an emotional relationship with and even attachment to robots. Darling holds the opinion that these relationships are important and real, even if they are one-sided.

The bottom line seems to be that robots, in particular those that appear think, feel, and understand us, capture our imagination and motivate us to continue creating ever smarter and more capable machines.

You can listen to the entire podcast yourself. It’s less than 20 minutes long and offers some fun and interesting insights.

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