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TIME Magazine, March 27, 1950, p. 74:|
SCIENCE: Synthetic Pets
The oddest pets in pet-loving Britain are two electric turtles named Elmer and Elsie. They play around the home of Dr. W. Grey Walter, head of the physiological department of the Burden Neurological Institute at Bristol. Elmer and Elsie are not exactly alive. Under their shiny steel shells are no flesh & blood, but only mechanical organs. They take no interest in each other, and could not, in any case, reproduce. But wandering around Dr. Walter's house, they act much like real live animals.
Each has one photoelectric eye and a "sense of touch" that tells him he has hit an obstacle. Under each shell are three small wheels and two battery-powered motors, one for creeping, one for steering. The brain and nervous system consist of condensers and relays [photo of Dr. Walter working on Elsie].
Simple Wants. When Dr. Walter, a kindly man, created his pets, he gave them only simple desires that could be simply satisfied. One of the desires is for light that is not too strong and not too weak. The other is for "food," i.e., electric current to charge their battery-stomachs.
Elmer and Elsie are nocturnal. During the day, repelled by too-strong light, they hide in a cozy "hutch" against the wainscoting. When night comes, they venture out in search of the mild artificial light that they crave. Guided by their photoelectric eyes, they creep toward a lamp or the fireplace. When they hit an obstacle, they stop, growl faintly, back away and try again at a slightly different angle. Their wanderings often take them all over the house. When they reach a light of the proper intensity, they bask under it blissfully in photoelectric euphoria.
But contentment does not last. As their batteries run down, Elmer and Elsie begin to feel uneasy. When hunger begins to dominate them, they lose interest in gentle light. Now they want strong light: the bright, glaring lamp that burns inside their hutch. They scuttle toward it eagerly. If all goes well, they pop into the hutch, where electrical contacts quiet their hunger by recharging their batteries. Not until their run-down stomachs are full do they creep out again in search of gentle light.
Sulks & Nerves. For more than a year Dr. Walter has been studying the habits of his pets. He is still unable to predict exactly how they will act. Sometimes they wander happily between two gentle lights, apparently enjoying an occasional change of scenery. Sometimes they get panicky when they hit a difficult obstacle. They may stall, sulk or become wildly agitated, almost as if the frustration were giving them a nervous breakdown...
Dr. Walter, one of Britain's leading physiologists, does not think Elmer and Elsie are entirely reliable tools for studying the human nervous system. But they have given him one good hint, he says. The human brain has something like ten billion nerve cells [more modern estimates range from 10 to 100 billion, with higher numbers more common]. Elmer and Elsie have the equivalent of only two, but even with this simple equipment, they give a lifelike performance. This observation suggests to Dr. Walter that the cells of the human brain may act in large groups, rather than independently. "In fact," he says, "it is possible that the brain may not be quite so complicated as we first feared."
Dr. Walter hopes soon to give Elmer and Elsie a simple kind of "memory," so that they can learn by experience to avoid unpleasant situations. Then he can teach them tricks and study the development of their conditioned reflexes.
The Grey Walter Online Archive
Article by Dr. Walter in Dutch
W. Grey Walter: The Machina speculatrix
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