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The Mindless Maid

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We owe the word robot to a play by a Czech, Carel Copek, staged in 1920. The underlying concept however was far older. Indeed, ten years previously a one-act play was published about an automatic housemaid—Mechanical Jane. Such little dramas as this were intended as amateur productions for the drawing room; they did not deal with grand themes and were aimed at providing innocent amusement for all ages, whether in the outposts of Empire or in provincial England. Scattered across the globe dwelt the members of a caste united by their mother tongue and the custom of entrusting their domestic arrangements to servants. The frustration and inconvenience resulting from unsuitable staff was a conversational topic with an appeal almost as universal as the weather: and at the same time demonstrated one's class credentials.

By the time I was involved in a performance of the play, forty years after its publication, the circumstances which had inspired it had all but disappeared. Two world wars had contributed no doubt to the sweeping away of the way of life which it had portrayed. That I was involved at all, that Jane was possibly a formative experience in my life, seems as improbable and contrived as any fiction. But such is life. About eight years old at the time, I was a boarder at Merrion House Preparatory School, in rural Sussex. It was this institution's custom to present an entertainment to the parents and other guests each Christmas term. The headmaster's wife used to choose the plays, train the boys and produce the whole show. This one is subtitled "A play in one act for Three Ladies" perhaps an odd choice for an all-boys production in 1950.

Yet having now reached the age that she must have been then, I can make a confident guess as to her reason for picking Jane. Forty years previously she had surely acted in it herself. Perhaps it was not just nostalgia on her part: I now find it a well-written and entertaining little piece, quite apart from having stuck in my memory, albeit in a garbled form, through all the intervening years. Recently, for some reason, I took it into my head to look it up in the British Museum Library.

The scene is "a sitting-room in a suburban villa", the home of two middle-aged spinsters. Afternoon tea is about to be served—after a fashion. Tabitha, the younger sister, is too vague and ineffectual to be able to cope without their housemaid who has been sacked by the domineering Priscilla. This fierce lady has gone off to the local agency to find a replacement, but it seems that good domestics are already rare treasure in 1910. However, she happens to spot an advert in the local paper: "Buy the new mechanical servant, and save yourself a lifetime of trouble. The Mechanical Jane will do the work of three servants in half the time of one ... It needs no holidays, does not ask questions, always obeys orders; buy the Mechanical Jane, the great invention of the age, and your household cares will cease—price £50."

Out she goes once more on impulse and returns with a life-size package wrapped in brown paper. This is "the Jane"—note the dismissive naming of machines and domestics alike. After being wound up like clockwork by pumping its arm up and down, it starts to move about stiffly. The author's grasp of the principles and practice of robotics is as rudimentary, by our sophisticated standards, as her grasp of mechanics. Jane, made of wood yet dressed as a conventional housemaid, seems to have enough built-in intelligence to be able to fetch a broom from the cupboard of a strange house. When the postman knocks later on it goes to the front door with no prompting to fetch the letter. Yet what happens when it sweeps the floor!

(Jane here catches the broom in the table-leg, remains stuck and still sweeping.)

Tabitha. That doesn't seem very satisfactory. If we weren't here, she might stand kicking there for hours.

Priscilla. Pooh, pooh, Tabitha! Show a little consideration, if you please. We cannot expect perfection at once. (Turns Jane round, but finds herself tripped up by the broom and falls on hands and knees.)

(Exit Jane)

I think even at that age I found this incongruous, but it was worth it for the slapstick of the intolerant Priscilla being struck to the ground.

My subsequent career in the software industry merely confirmed that Jane was in fact a faithful portrayal of much high technology, incongruities and all. Just ape a bit of human behaviour, whether physical or mental and we seem ready to give credit for a great deal more than is actually displayed: until some crass malfunction opens our eyes to the fact that its only human attribute is fallibility.

Whilst our sensitivity to anthropomorphic signals is innate (from babyhood we can see two crudely drawn eyes as a face) the performance of Jane showed me also the opposite tendency. We scan both physiognomy and behaviour for signals to interpret and we may have an innate mental programme to detect anything "alien", anything that does not conform to our notions of regular human appearance. (The roots of racism run this deep, but fortunately can be re-calibrated by an act of goodwill and understanding.) To indicate to the audience that Jane was an automaton made of wood, it was only necessary to paint a crude blob of rouge on each cheek, remain expressionless throughout and demonstrate an awkwardness in moving and balancing. The boy who played the part had nothing like the skill of those "robot dancers" who provide street entertainment today. Though none of us boys had previously encountered the concept of robots, which if I recall correctly played no part in children's culture of 19501, we instinctively recognised a machine-person and could cope with the idea perfectly. If it was true then, I believe it to be true for any age. And this little bit of historical perspective leads me to treat present-day claims of machine intelligence with suspicion—an age-old archetype dressed in new clothes.

I make these remarks because it seems that some very sophisticated scientists today are too dumb to know the difference between man and machine. In the domain of pure belief strengthened to religious fervour by the lack of any supporting evidence, the notion of "machine intelligence" seems to have become the new orthodoxy. To quote from learned texts and respectable scientists, (Marvin Minsky, Richard Dawkins, Barrow & Tipler ...) is just too tedious. This is the superstition of our age and you'll find it creeping in everywhere—yesterday the dull journals, today the Daily Mail. In 1910, the god of technology, even of the hydraulic and steam-driven variety, must have already held sway, for Jane's author to poke fun at it as she does.

Anyhow, back to the plot. An understated version of a nightmare scenario starts to unfold. The sistersof course fail to read the instructions properly —how little things have changed since 1910!—and as a result make a fatal mistake. They should have started her up in the morning, to synchronise her pre-programmed work-schedule to local time.

Tabitha (who has been reading the directions). I think she is beginning her work at six o'clock in the morning and we can't stop her. Oh, sister, how dreadful! We shall always be wrong in our time. It is now half past five in the afternoon, but the Jane evidently counts it as six o'clock in the morning. We shall either have to ignore her altogether or to regulate our days by her time. (Sits on chair close beside Priscilla.)

Priscilla. What an awful idea!

Tabitha.When other people are having supper, we shall be eating breakfast, and we shall have to go to bed, just when everyone else is getting up1. It will be as bad as living in New Zealand.

Priscilla. It's monstrous! And yet of course we cannot go to bed and allow her the free run of the house.

Thus the benign tyranny of technology is predicted. The slave becomes the master. Irreversible processes of chaos are unleashed. A little Chernobyl threatens in the suburban sitting-room.

But all ends well. The automaton's limitations, as so often happens, fortuitously cancel each other out. It runs out of power before it can do further damage. With heartfelt relief the sisters send it back to the shop. Their former servant Mary Thompson applies for her job back and the poor girl's inadequacies are seen in an altogether rosier perspective after the soulless horrors of the unstoppable Jane.

Is it going too far to read a feminist message into Jane? This device must be a male invention. It invades a woman's world and chaos ensues. The two sisters don't get on very peaceably with each other or their succession of sacked maidservants, but the intrusion of this man-made monster provides a common enemy which brings the womenfolk closer together. Going beyond what the text actually says, I find scope to endorse the feminine attitude to machinery and artificial intelligence. Man can't bring forth human life, in the form of babies. So he constructs Pinocchio, hoping that the good fairy will breathe true life into it. He's blind to its present clumsiness, believing it will get better. But no biological principles of individual development or genetic evolution come to his aid. Beliefs however can stretch indefinitely.

I'm belatedly grateful to my headmistress3, Lord rest her soul, for opening my young eyes to the realities of high technology. The years since then have merely confirmed what Jane taught me already at eight years old, namely:

the marketing people always make exaggerated claims

instructions are never good enough, even if you did bother to read them before all else failed

we want the benefits of technology but our fears of the side-effects are usually well-justified

the original concept which inspired any given machine is invariably as grandiose as its realisation is crude

when we discover the machine is insufficiently adapted to us, we are fools enough to adapt our lives to it rather than throwing it away

the machine is a surrogate servant, in principle working for us obediently day and night, but in practice just a stupid mechanism.



  1. I was later to discover the Eagle comic, famous for its Dan Dare strip cartoon. This had Treens with their ruler the Mekon. They were green aliens, though, not robots.

  2. Thus adumbrating by eighty-seven years the exact dilemma experienced by the owner of a Tamagotchi, or CyberPet, going abroad on holiday. You can either "kill" it and reset to local time (repeating this when you get home from holiday) or wake up in the night to feed it, play with it and clean up its droppings. My children in August 1997 did the latter.

  3. Nora Brummell-Hicks, née Strudwick.

©1997 Ian Mulder

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