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The muscular, the sensorial, and the cerebral machines


Lucia Santaella-Braga

São Paulo Catholic University



It is not easy to define what machines are. In a broad sense, a machine is any construction or organization whose parts are interconnected in such a way that, when put into motion, work is accomplished as a unit. In this sense, the human body and the human mind may be compared to machines. In a more specific sense, the concept of a machine implies some kind of force which has the power to increase the speed and energy of any activity whatsoever. This description applies to the most rudimentary kinds of machines, for example, to a heavy Medieval catapult that was used to throw stones.

The appearance of engines provided new possibilities of transmitting or modifying the application of power, force or movement in machines. There are several kinds of engines: steam engines, combustion, pneumatic, hydraulic, and electric engines. All of these have in common the capacity to transform a given energy into kinetic and mechanical energy. After the invention of engines, the word machine, in a more literal sense, began to be restricted to devices which include some kind of engine. Indeed, engines brought support to the ideal of autonomy in machines since these came to be basically understood both as a set of parts or solid bodies and as a generator of kinetic or mechanical energy transmitting force and movement to those parts in a predetermined way and with predetermined ends.

Thought about the relations and even the analogy between humans and machines is certainly not recent. It appeared already in Aristotle and was also at the basis of the dualist conception of human beings in Descartes. In the course of the centuries, it has occupied the minds of many philosophers. Despite the great interest that philosophical reflections on machines may have, the aim of the following will be a different one. My proposal is to map semiotically three main levels of relation between humans and machines that I have encountered: (1) the muscular level, corresponding to Peirce's category of secondness, (2) the sensorial level, corresponding to the category of firstness, and (3) the cerebral level, which corresponds to the category of thirdness.

These three levels are historical ones. The muscular level precedes the sensorial one and the sensorial level precedes the cerebral one. This means that the category of secondness precedes firstness. Leaving this apparent contradicton to be discussed at another occasion, it is now important to stress the fact that whenever a new level is reached, the previous ones are not anihilated. The higher levels continue to coexist and they lead even to an interchange and collaboration with the lower ones.


1. Muscular machines

Before the Industrial Revolution, the relations between human beings and machines were still rudimentary and limited since these machines were crude artifacts. Consider, for instance, a catapult or instruments as those that were used in tortures, but also more specialized ones like instruments for measuring or for research such as clocks or telescopes. From the eighteenth century on, this scenario came to be profoundly and increasingly modified. "The 19th century.was the age of the industrial revolution, whose emblem was the steam engine, which converts the chemical energy of the carbon into kinetic energy and finally into mechanical work. Any engine has as input some nonmechanical energy and as output some mechanical work (Marcus 1997: 19).

Our ancestors marvelled at the machines introduced by the industrial revolution because they allowed the substitution of the physical force of human beings. Using first steam and later electricity, the energy produced by the machines was put in the service of man, saving muscular effort and human exertion (Schaff 1991: 22). The nature of the industrial revolution is essentially an electromechanical one. Its characteristics are inscribed in the nature of machines whose power are limited to the imitation of the crudest and most repetitive human gestures, in sum, mechanical gestures. The first electromechanical machines were servile machines which worked for men, substituting human labor in its purely physical and mechanical aspects. In fact, this substitution does not occur under equal conditions since the machine is able to accelerate the movements and intensify the realization of hard tasks.

Every machine begins with emmulating a human capacity. Its goal is to imitate and to amplify this capacity. In this sense, there have been machines long before before the industrial revolution. A lever, for instance, is a machine, for when its point of support comes near to the object to be moved, it is converted into an amplifier of force. Besides such machines, which served as amplifications of force, there were also mills used for the mechanization of locomotion. "The movement of great weights which rolled on gigantic tree trunks was a precursor of the vehicles moved by wheels. This translated the power of human beings for locomotion – a power which was amplified in due time by the incorporation of all kinds of engines" (Beer 1974: 25).

The two characteristics above, amplification of force and mechanization of locomotion, which were already present in the rudiments of any machine, are thus the characteristics which define the profile of the early industrial machines. This is exactly the type of functioning at the basis of the first ideas about robots, a machine made at the image and similarity of the human muscles, ready to work for humans.

Despite being an invention of the industrial revolution, the muscular machines have evolved and exist today under the most diverse appearances. By the way, they are not confined to the factories. Unfortulately, the similarity between humans and machines is taken so literally as to preclude the recognition of the multitude of robots which accompany us in our daily lives without having necessarily a human appearance. Following this idea of a machine capable of increasing or even substituting muscular and physical functions, robots are machines such as elevators, cars, mixers, hoovers, and many other appliances which turn everyday life easier.

Much more complex than such domestic robots is the necessity of precision in the mechanization of tools for the industrialized production. Besides the amplification of force and the mechanization of movement, another human capacity that had to be imitated was the capacity of precision. The problems presented by the mechanical precision of tools are the following ones: how can a given sequence of precise activities be controlled? How can a piece of work be attached to the next piece, and how can we interfere in this sequence? This type of flexibility in the elaborated process of fabricating objects belongs to a human capacity, since it implies an activity of control of the highest order whose execution requires the nerves of the fingers, the control of the autonomous nervous system, and most of all, it requires a brain. That is why the industries needed the integrated work of humans and machines. Of this adaptation of human minds and bodies for the acceleration of the machines, Charles Chaplin gave us a splendid caricature in his movie Modern Times.

However, only a short time was needed to convert the caricature of Modern Times into a historical document. The remarkable accomplishments in science and technology were soon to bring about a completely new kind of machine, so new and complex as to put into question the idea of machine itself. I am now referring to the computer, a device with capacities evincing to a certain degree similarities with the capacities of a human brain.

In connection with the industrial production, the computers gave us a first true example of a device that is able to control machines. In this way, the scenario of industrial production began to change. It was now possible to construct completely automatic production lines in which humans are substituted by robots, succesfully eliminating labor in the process of production and services (Schaff 1991: 22). Today, there are even factories equipped with islands of computarized machines producing other machines. Demac (1990: 211) tells us that such islands will soon be connected to whole archipelagos of intercommunicating agents of production.

Before the invention of computers, machines were merely muscular, brainless robots. The computer brought an element of brain to their brute muscles. However, this passage from the muscular to the cerebral level did not occur immediatly. It was mediated by the advent of another type of machine operative at a more strictly sensory level, which gave rise to a new set of questions.


2. Sensorial machines

Still in the context of the industrial revolution, another kind of machines, different from those substituting the muscular effort of humans, began to appear, machines functioning as extensions of specialized human sensory organs, namely, extensions of the eye and of the ear, a development which began with the photographic camera. The functioning of these machines is so intrinsically linked to the specialization of human vision and hearing that the designation apparatuses is more suitable to them than the one of machines.

While muscular machines are ingenuous, sensory machines are constructed thanks to the help of research and scientific theories about the functioning of the human sensory organs, especially the eye. They are, therefore, machines endowed with sensitive intelligence, as far as they embody a certain level of theoretical knowledge about the organs whose functioning they extend. Hence, they are already cognitive machines, but merely on the sensorial level.

While muscular machines were made to work, apparatuses were made to simulate the functioning of a sensory organ. They are, in fact, extensions of the senses, as McLuhan has characterized them. However, what McLuhan did not see is that they are semiotic apparatuses. Being simulators of the sensory organs, these semiotic apparatuses became able to produce and reproduce new entities which were to provoke deep changes in the world. These new entities are the signs, technically produced signs.

While working machines imitate and amplify human muscular force, accelerating the rhythm of work, apparatuses are machines for registration, not only fixing in a reproduction support that which the eyes see and the ears hear, but also amplifying the human capacity of hearing and seeing, providing us with new perspectives which we would not have without the apparatuses. In sum: while muscular machines produce objects, apparatuses produce and reproduce visual and acoustic signs.

After the advent of muscular machines, the world began to be more and more populated by industrialized objects. After the advent of apparatuses it began to be increasingly populated by signs. Functioning as extensions of vision and hearing, the apparatuses are not only amplifications of sensory processing, but they are also machines that register and reproduce what is captured by the senses. A photography, for instance, is an image, a view of reality, registered on a support, the negative, which, besides being durable, functions as a matrix of infinite copies. In this sense, the outputs or the sign products of the apparatuses are also forms of extrasomatic memory of vision and hearing.

There seems to be no doubt that the registers fixed by the visual and audible apparatuses are fragments stolen from the world out there, that is, fragments captured from reality into the camera or into the tape recorder to be returned to the world as signs, doubles, images and echoes of the existent. The apparatuses are, therefore, paradoxical machines. On the one hand, they steal pieces of reality. On the other hand, they send these pieces back to reality, ejecting them in the form of signs.

However, besides being duplicators, apparatuses are also reproducers, infinite registrators of those fragments. Besides being replicants, they are, above all, proliferators of signs. The apparatuses function, in this way, like genuine factories for sign production. For these reasons, in spite of the great differences in the modes of registration, diffusion, distribution, and reception by which photography, cinema, videography, and holography are distinguished, all these apparatuses have some common denominators: (1) they are genuine sign factories, (2) the vicarious character of the signs they produce, what can be evinced by the umbilical cord which links these signs slavishly to reality, to the world out there.


3. Cerebral machines

During the Industrial Revolution, the metaphor of the steam machines was predominant. This metaphor was substituted, in the second half of this century, by the image of the computer and the various metaphors derived from it. Among them, the most usual is the metaphor of the brain as a computer and vice versa. "The root of this metaphor is in the claim that we have already in our body the essential structure of a computer and that this situation had a decisive role in the invention of computers. Assimilation of the living being with a steam engine, the dominant metaphor in the 19 th century, had also its roots in the claim that we already have the essence of the steam engine in our structure as living beings, and this fact inspired the steam engine" (Marcus 1997: 33). As Thom (1993: 124) points out, "the heart viewed as a pump is, in its turn, a metaphor which has its root in the fact that we already have the essential structure of the pump in our body and just this fact inspired the invention of the pump".

Human beings have always been intrigued by the possibility of imitating life through an artifact (Cohen 1966). While the mechanisms of the clock, at the pre-industrial age, for instance, were primarily limited to the imitation of movement, the apparatuses or sensorial machines, on their turn, already began to imitate the organs of the senses. These special types of machines, the apparatuses, inaugurated the possibility to investigate internal processes of humans. This was to culminate in the appearance, in the middle of our century, of a very abstract way of understanding mechanism, namely, mechanism conceived in a computational sense as it can be found in the Turing machine, which is a theoretical machine with theoretical purposes.

What was engendered in the Turing machine was not another industrial technology, not even a machine for the sensorial replication of the world through its sign products, but an intellectual, a mental tool directly relevant for the study of the mysteries of intelligence. The difference between a device, no matter how complex it may be, and a digital computer as a variant of a Turing machine is due to the fact that the computer is not only a complicated web of electronic impulses, neither is it an automaton of finite states, but it is a device that processes symbols. With the computer, a means of imitating and simulating mental processes was invented (Pylyshyn 1984: 49-86; Meunier 1991).

The first computers in the 1940´s weighted tons; they occupied whole floors in large buildings. To be programmed they needed the connection of their circuits through cables on a panel inspired in the telephone patterns. They were really brutal, dinosaurs kept in isolation from lay people. In the 1950´s, the cable still existed, but they were already inside the machinery, covered by a new skin of programs and reading devices. It was only in the 1970´s that the use of the screen was generalized and, since then, screen and keyboard became inseparable parts of the computer. The big revolution, however, was only to come with the personal computer, an unpredicted inovation that was to transform informatics in a mass media for the creation, communication and simulation.

More and more, communication with machines, at first too abstract and lacking sense to the user, was substituted by intuitive, metaphorical, and sensorial interactive processes through friendly informatic agencies integrated to the systems of human sensitiveness and cognition. In sum: the computer itself in its evolutionary process gradually became humanized, loosing its machine appearance and gaining new technical layers for fluid interfaces which are complementary to the human senses and brain. This is happening to the extent of promoting a coevolution between humans, machines, and informatic processes, capable of creating a new type of collectivity no longer strictly human, but hybrid, post human, whose frontiers are in permanent redefinition.

As cybernetic systems become integrated to psychical systems, as artificial neural networks are linked to biological neural networks, a new cognitive set is engendered which move brain and mind towards a bioelectronic culture.

While the first machines born in the realm of the industrial revolution, the muscular machines, were purely mimetic and crudely physical machines, the second ones, the sensorial machines, being less crude and more subtle, began to loose the character of machines to turn into apparatuses, extensors of the senses and able to produce technical signs. At the third level of the relation between man and machine, which I have called the cerebral level, the notion of machine itself is being definitely substituted by instable and complicated agencies of circuits, organs, diverse apparatuses, layers of programmes, interfaces, where each of these parts, in its turn, can be decomposed into webs of interfaces. In this new universe, the idea of a machine is being gradually substituted by more fluid connections of interfaces. Through these interfaces, through the means of screens, buttons, menus, and icons computers are increasingly open to new interactions with the physical and human sensorial and cognitive environment in intelligent systems of data processing, modules of natural language comprehension, devices for the recognition of forms, and expert systems for self diagnosis and interfaces of interfaces.

All this development has only turned possible, however, thanks to the great synthesizer, which is the digital model, able to connect images, sound and writing in a single electronic tissue, therefore being able to connect cinema, television, journalism, text edition, informatics, and telecommunication inside its web. As a principle of interface, the digital codification, with its bits of images, texts, and sounds, attracts our senses and our thoughts to its texture. It is the great, light, mobile, malleable, unbreakable processor.

Muscular machines amplify the force and the physical movements of humans while the sensorial machines dilate the power of our senses. Cerebral machines, in its turn, amplify our mental abilities, especially those of memory and processing. Data banks are hypermemories and the digital synthesis universe of circuits and interfaces is a transducer and processor of a profusion of signs. Thanks to the abitility of the digital computer to transform any data, voice, sound, video, noise, diagrams etc into electronic impulses, there can be no sign whatsoever which can not be absorbed, transduced, manipulated and transformed.

As they amplify the capacities of the human sensory organs, the apparatuses or sensorial machines make copies of the visible and audible world, being therefore producers and reproducers of signs. That is why they promote an increasing semiotic proliferation. There is no single corner of the world that is not hyperpopulated by signs (Santaella 1996). Now, because the computers are endowed with transducer interfaces, they function as real attractors of signs, processing and manipulating them in the most varied forms. The signs and data have grown to such an extent that they are in need of hyperbrains to process them. As they amplify the power of cerebral processing, the computers presently seem to be performing the role of hyperbrains that manipulate the avalanche of signs that are produced by the apparatuses. In this way, the human senses and the brain are growing outside of the human body, extending their branches to ever mobile frontiers of hybrid landscapes, where biological environments are mixed to the synthesized spaces and environments of cyberspace and virtual reality.

The multidirectional, telematic culture of the net gives rise to a global connectivity of people and places. This generates new forms of collectivity and mental worlds with no definite frontiers which Roy Ascott (1995) has called hypercortex. According to Kac (1995: 173-178), the hybrids of internet, namely, the processes of coexistence of real and virtual spaces or telepresence, the synchronicity of actions, remote control in real time, operations of robots and collaborations through the net are creating new forms of develoment involving human beings, plants, animals, and robots. In such a complex ecosystem a new profile for humans seems to be delineated. Its consequences and implications will probably be even more profound than the ones of the neolithic revolution




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