AUTOMATON (Greek, ’αυτοματος [automatos]—self-acting)—as intuitively understood, a technical device that performs a certain work without the participation of a man (that is, it works by itself), except for a starting signal that is communicated to it.
An automaton may have various external shapes. If its shape suggests a man or an animal and imitates the behavior of a man or an animal, it is commonly called a robot. The developed cycle of an automaton’s work is composed of reception, transformation, storage, and transmission of data from its surroundings. The data may be various kinds of materials, energies, or information. An automaton that transforms information, also called a calculating machine, in its most perfect form today is a computer or microcomputer. An automaton may have a fixed way of working assigned by its builder (e.g., an automaton that opens a door; the old automaton of this type was invented in the first century BC by Hero of Alexandria and was a mechanism that raised a curtain in front of an altar as a result of the heat from the sacrifical fire lit on the altar; game automatons, ticket automatons) or it may have a programmed way of working (a washing machine, a numerically guided lathe). An automaton may be automatic in various degrees.
An automaton in the cybernetic and mathematical understanding (an abstract automaton) is the system M = (X, Y, Q, p, w), where X is a certain finite set, called the starting alphabet, Y is a certain finite set called the ending alphabet, Q is the set of internal states, p is the function of direct transition to the next state, and w is the function of immediate exit.
Intuitively the set X is the collection of elements that compose the possible initial data for setting the automaton in motion. The set Y consists in the responses that the automaton gives after performing its tasks. The set Q contains the states in which the automaton finds itself in the course of its work. The function p determines the automaton’s work by showing how to pass from one state to another. The function w indicated when the automaton must stop its work.
If Y is an empty set (or a non-empty set), then the automaton is called an endless automaton (or an ending automaton). Without making the concept of the automaton any less general, it is accepted that only two initial elements are permitted, and these are designated by zero and one. We are then dealing with a binary case. From the theoretical and technical point of view this is an important case.
The set Q may be either a finite or an infinite set. In the first case the automaton will be called finite.
An automaton may be just as well defined by the analytical method (presented above as a system composed of five elements), the geometrical method (as a specific kind of oriented graph called a graphoid), or by the algebraic method (as a system of two matrices, one for the function of transition, the other for the function of beginning). By refining the definitions given we obtain a series of formulations of the automaton that correspond to the kinds of problems that it is intended to solve.
It is accepted that the most general automaton is the so-called Turing machine.
Automata, beginning with the clock automaton, influence philosophical thought by suggesting a particular vision of the cosmos, a conception of time, and by presenting new problems. In particular, computers, computer network, especially neural networks (called connection systems) inspired the questions: can a computer think? can a computer possess consciousness? These and similar problems are considered in the field of so-called artificial intelligence. The term is not very precise, but it has become commonly accepted along with its English abbreviation AI (artificial intelligence). Two radical positions function here, so-called weak and strong artificial intelligence. Weak AI answers in the negative to the above question, and strong AI answers in the positive.
The terms thought and consciousness as drawn from ordinary language are terms with an intuitive meaning, and so their meanings are vague and imprecise. Consequently they do not have a definite linguistic content and are not terms with an explicit meaning.
Automatic machines do not possess consciousness and the ability to think in the same sense as man possesses these. They are, however, able to perform successfully certain operations and imitate behaviors that are associated in the case of man with consciousness and thought. This kind of replacement of conscious human activity is the actual goal of the main current of studies in artificial intelligence and provides enormous technical possibilities.
AI shows new and broad horizons of research that include problems from the particular sciences and from philosophy.
Cybernetics, in particular information science, has created almost unlimited technical possibilities that have both good and evil consequences, and so the ethical problem appears fundamental here. The solution would be to base the functioning of society on truly human values.
N. Wiener, Cybernetics, NY 1961; M. A. Harrison, Introduction to Switching and Automata Theory, [no place of publication] 1965 (Wstęp do teorii sieci przełączających i teorii automatów [Introduction to the theory of switching networks and the theory of automata] , Wwa 1973); R. E. Kalman, P. L. Falb, M. A, Arbib, Topics in Mathematical System Theory, NY 1969; J. Tchórzewski, Inżynieria wiedzy i systemy ekspertowe w planowaniu rozwoju elektromagnetycznej sieci przemysłowej [Engineering of knowledge and expert systems in the planning of an electromagnetic industrial network], Siedlce 1995; J. Kloch, Świadomość komputerów [Consciousness of computers?], Kr 1996.