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Monkbot: 16th century AI

We think about Artificial Intelligence as a uniquely 21st century invention, but recently I heard, in passing, about Monkbot, a 16th century robot. Monkbot now lives in the Smithsonian, but he originally started out in Spain (most likely) created by a mechanic who worked for Charles V.

He’s a brilliant example of early clockwork automation. When he’s wound up with a key, he walks around in a square, and he hits his chest with his right arm. With his left hand he raises and lowers a small wooden cross and rosary. He also turns his head and nods it, and rolls his eyes. Sometimes he lifts the cross to his mouth and kisses it. After 450 years, Monkbot still works, which is remarkable in itself.

The story behind Monkbot supposedly is that Charles’ son, King Philip II, praying at the bedside of a dying son of his own, promised that if the son was spared, Philip would provide his own miracle. When the child did recover, Philip created this mechanized robot monk.  Philip did have a son, Don Carlos, who was gravely injured at this time, so much so that everyone was convinced he was dying, and Philip actually left his bedside, certain that it made no difference. Don Carlos did, in fact, recover. This was definitely seen as a miracle.

In the Blackbird Journal there’s a long piece looking at the history of Monkbot, and separating out the legend from the truth. Read more about Monkbot here.

And if you want to dig really deep, RadioLab did an episode on him which you can listen to here.

As creepy as Monkbot looks (and in this soundless video below he does, in fact, look super creepy) I love how Gizmodo sums him up in this article: “It may have been created as an act of religious gratitude, but it stands (and walks and prays) as a tribute to human ability.”