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This Is Your Brain on Nanobots

- Abstract

In 1769, Wolfgang von Kempelen, a thirty-five-year-old Hungarian engineer, built the world’s first chess computer—a chest-sized cabinet of gears and cogs behind which sat a wooden mannequin dressed as a Turk. After a sensational debut in 1770 at the imperial court in Vienna, where the clockwork Turk swiftly dispatched a courtier named Count Coblenz, von Kempelen’s contraption toured Europe for the next several decades. In celebrated matches, it defeated Benjamin Franklin, Catherine the Great, and Napoleon Bonaparte, among other luminaries of the age.

Of course, the Turk was a hoax; inside the cabinet, a human chessmaster controlled the turbaned dummy. Still, a mechanical man was not outside the realm of imagination in the Enlightenment era, and the mysterious automaton sparked serious debate over the promise and the limits of machines. In England, Robert Willis, who would later become a professor of applied mechanics at Cambridge, avowed his skepticism that a device like the Turk, with its paucity of movements and operations, could ever “usurp and exercise the faculties of the human mind”; chess, in his view, would remain “the province of the intellect alone.” But there were also enthusiasts, like Willis’s countryman Charles Babbage, who—after losing to the Turk in 1821—was inspired to design the first true mechanical computer. It was only a matter of time, Babbage reckoned, until a genuine chess-playing machine could be built.

About the Author

Kevin Shapiro is a research fellow in neuroscience and a student at Harvard Medical School.