Aristotle on Household Robots

By Sean Carroll | September 28, 2010 4:23 pm

At Science Not Fiction, Malcolm MacIver reports on Roombots — robots that can assemble themselves into different pieces of “furniture,” depending on the demands of the situation. Meanwhile, in the middle of a lecture on Marx, Brad DeLong mentions that Aristotle long ago pointed out that the drudgeries of everyday life would prevent most people from becoming true lovers of wisdom. Too much time cooking and cleaning made it hard to curl up with a good philosophy book. In Aristotle’s time, the solution was clear: have your slaves do the dirty work while you contemplated deep thoughts. But he was smart enough to realize that there was another possible route to carving out free time: automation. In the Politics (c. 350 BCE) he writes:

There is only one condition in which we can imagine managers not needing subordinates, and masters not needing slaves.

This condition would be that each (inanimate) instrument could do its own work, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation, like the statues of Daedalus or the tripods made by Hephaestus, of which Homer relates that

“Of their own motion they entered the conclave of Gods on Olympus”

as if a shuttle should weave of itself, and a plectrum should do its own harp playing.

I suspect Aristotle would have been quite tickled at self-reassembling robots.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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