W. Grey Walter’s Tortoises

W. Grey Walter began his study of mechanical animals in the 1940s as part of his research into the neurophysiology of the brain. Walter, working independently of Norbert Wiener and his circle, saw the value of building simple machines that mimicked the mental processes of humans and animals. Using light-sensitive and touch-sensitive control mechanisms, Walter’s “tortoises” responded to their environment—bumping and jostling their way around a room.

In a 1950 article for Scientific American, entitled “An Imitation of Life,” Walter described the close relationship between the animal brain and the recent design of computing machines. He went on to argue that his “tortoises” and their behaviours—characterized by “uncertainty, randomness, free will and independence”—illustrated the possibility of a machine consciousness.

Text To Speech

“Bristol's Robot Tortoises Have Minds of their Own,” 1950, video, 2:13 min., BBC Television

W. Grey Walter, “An Imitation Of Life,” Scientific American, Vol. 182, No. 5 (May 1950), pp. 42–45, Published by: Scientific American, a division of Nature America, Inc.