Archive for July, 2017

Heinrich von Kleist’s essay ”On the Marionette Theater” – Predicting the Robot Revolution?

July 30, 2017

Von Kleist’s brilliant essay (1810) is about a philosophical dialogue in three parts. Herr C. is a dancer with interest in forms of graceful movement. His view is that full automatism is superior to human dancers:

He…replied that he dared to venture that a marionette constructed by a craftsman…could perform a dance that neither he nor any other outstanding dancer of his time…could equal.

One could argue that the meaning is that a machine could do better that a human being. Also it could possibly mean that a human being with mechanical parts could be superior to biological humans:
…it would be almost impossible for a man to attain even an approximation of a mechanical being.

Of course von Kleist could not have intentionally commented on AI 200 years before the emergence of mechanical intelligence. We now know that it is possible to get close to smart or even superior behavior without the need for any human intelligence or consciousness. Biotechnology will probably someday make humans both stronger, smarter and longer-lived as well as more graceful.

The so called Robot Revolution is also in full swing not only in the United States when this is written in 2017. Japan and South Korea have both come a long way. It is however doubtful if the term robot will be used in the future. New machines will be so specialized that they are not the two-legged automatons envisioned by for example science fiction writers.

South Korea

Grosse Mischkonzerne in Südkorea (sogenannte Chaebols) wie SK, LG, POSCO, Hanwha, ILJIN, Hyundai and Samsung sind vorreiter der Industrie 4.0. 1)

The goal of South Korea is to provide one robot to every home by 2020. KAIST (Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology) has developed Hubo II, a 1,5 meter tall robot that can run. Robots are being developed to serve as prison wardens.


In Japan robots are already serving customers in Japanese department stores and banks. In 2015 the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe opened the Robot Revolution Initiative Council. Members of that council are 200 companies and universities. The council did not mention graceful dancing robots when giving examples of what of what challenges could be solved in the future by robots: labor shortages, less overwork, and improving productivity in manufacturing, medical services and nursing care. Other fields could be agriculture, construction and maintenance of infrastructure. Japan is already a world leader in factory robots with such industries as Fanuc, Kawasaki Heavy Industries and Yaskawa Electric. 2)

The American “National Robotics Initiative” has put the United States in a leading position. Companies such as Google are presently investing in driverless cars and there are other initiatives. To mention a few there are Starship Technologies with robots that can deliver packages, dodge objects and cross roads. The Pepper robot by Aldebaran Robotics and SoftBank Mobile are able to interact with humans by analyzing face expressions, voice tone and body language. Prospero is a farming robot that can patrol farmland as well as planting seed and cover it with fertilizer. 3)

Europe is seeking to catch up but so far is lagging behind.


Predictions in the field of AI include bots being able to have real-time smartphone conversations, algorithms that can predict how voters will act at the polls and computers being able to ingest data and write 2,000 news stories per second. Algorithms will be used to assess personalities and predict behavior.

It is quite possible that the marionette envisioned by von Kleist will be become reality making the German 19th century author a visionary. He would not be the first, however. In 1495 Leonardo da Vinci sketched a mechanical knight.

The knight could sit up and move arms and legs being the first plan for a humanoid robot.


1) Deutsche Akademie der Technikwissenschaften. Projektgruppe “Industrie 4.0 im globalen Kontext”.
2) Anthony Fensom, “Japan’s Robot Revolution”, The Diplomat, July 10, 2015.
3) Tom Vanderbilt, “Here Comes the (Mundane) Robot Uprising”, Wire, June 2016.