Moxon’s Master: Unearthing the Ancestral Ties to Today’s AI Debates

Published in 1899, “Moxon’s Master” by Ambrose Pierce is strikingly relevant today with its exploration of artificial intelligence (AI), automation, and robotics.

The story revolves around a conversation between the narrator and his friend, Moxon, who’s invented a chess playing automation. It explores the then-far out idea of machines exhibiting intelligent behavior.

The quick read poses profound questions about the nature of consciousness, autonomy, and the relationship between creator and creation.

Industrial Automation in 1899

When Moxon’s Master was published, automation primarily consisted of mechanical and rudimentary methods that are vastly different from today’s technologies.

Plot Details

The story begins with a philosophical discussion about the nature of matter and life. Discussing whether a machine could ever be considered a living entity, Moxon argues mechanical and human actions fundamentally the same.

Moxon’s take: “What is a machine? The word has been variously defined. Here is one definition from a popular dictionary: ‘Any instrument or organization by which power is applied and made effective, or a desired effect produced.’ Well, then, is not a man a machine? And you will admit that he thinks – or thinks he is.”

This is alarming to the narrator, who says, “It was not altogether pleasing, for it tended to confirm a sad suspicion that Moxon’s devotion to study and work in his machine-shop had not been good for him. I knew, for one thing, that he suffered from insomnia, and that is no light affliction.”

Moxon introduces the narrator to his chess-playing automation invention. Despite its mechanical nature, the automation unsettles the narrator with its skill and apparent insights.

The game becomes increasingly tense, culminating with the automation attacks and kills its inventor in a fit of frustration. The narrator flees, ending the story with ambiguity about the incident.

An official investigation pins the cause on an electrical experiment gone awry, but the true nature of Moxon’s demise and sentience are up to the reader’s interpretation.

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