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George Cavendish and William Percy
sat in the lounge of the Steamsmith Guild
arguing over some project of Percy's.
Maryam listened idly until Percy
said something so foolish that she
had to sit up and take note.
"The real bottleneck in producing
automatons is the need to provide
the animating spirit," Percy said.
"If we could do away with that,
why then we could make as many
autonomous machines as anyone wanted!"
"Here now, if you go trying to build something
that moves itself without any wits, you are
sure to cause a disaster," Maryam said sharply.
"It's all very fine to make a machine steered by a man,
but if it's meant to follow a pattern on its own,
then it can't be a dumb machine.
The science won't support it."
"I had the simplest little pattern worked out --
it was nothing more than noughts and ones,
meant to make the hand flip a switch,
off for nought and on for one."
"He's got a point," Cavendish said,
quick to support his friend.
"Nothing is ever as simple as it seems,"
Maryam said. "Noughts and ones are math.
An automaton needs something to understand with,
and you hadn't given it anything. That's cruel,
Percy, not to mention bloody dangerous."
"I don't see why we should have to train them
like dogs," said Percy. "We ought to be able
to put the instructions right into a pattern, like --
like stringing cards on a loom!"
"There can be no mind without spirit,"
Old Henry said. "Remember what happened
to the late Robert Boyle and his mad ideas."
Both young men drooped at the reference,
and even Maryam shivered.
Everyone knew the story of how Boyle,
who was fond of philosophy and physics
as well as inventing things, had studied
aer and gasses, then gotten it into his head
that he could make an autonomous machine
running on those instead of an animating spirit.
The poor thing had torn itself apart
and unbalanced every alchemical device
in the entire building around the laboratory.
The resulting explosion had burnt down
a sizable portion of Oxford.
"Now lads, no need to look so glum,"
Old Henry said, patting their shoulders.
"There's clockwork to consider!
One can do quite a lot with gears
and meters, without needing
any more guidance than a man's hand."
"I'm pants at clockwork," Percy said.
"Let's have a lesson, then, shall we?"
Old Henry said. He pulled out a pipe.
"Maryam, you pull up a chair too --
this will suit your carriage work."
Percy and Cavendish frowned, but
did not dare to protest her inclusion.
Maryam leaned close to see
what Old Henry was doing
with the tiny toothed wheels.
As fascinated as she was,
she shivered again over what Percy
had been trying to accomplish.
Maryam could not imagine a world
in which there could be a mind
without a soul.
* * *
This series uses a British spellchecker.
In our world, the principles of robotics dictate that programming is possible, limited by the massive amount of work it takes to anticipate everything necessary to include, but it's difficult to set up a program that can teach itself by experience. In nether-Earth, it is nearly the opposite. Automatons learn more like living creatures rather than being programmed by hand like Terran robots. Because of the way alchemical science works in conjunction with spirit, and requires a certain balance, a mindless program cannot maintain equilibrium and quickly tears itself apart -- often doing a lot of damage to nearby alchemical equipment in the process. Poor Percy is running up against something that would work perfectly well in our world but not in his.
Historic alchemists and mad scientists include Robert Boyle, who left behind many interesting inventions. Gas flow computers appeared early on, later replaced by more sophisticated technology.
A jacquard loom uses cards with holes to manage vast numbers of strings in a process related to punched card computers. Purely mechanical things like that will work in nether-Earth, but the more complex the program, the more it becomes like a mind of its own, and the more inclined it is to crash. Electronic computers are right out -- unless someone finds a way to give them a spirit like the automatons have.