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    You may have occasion to possess or use material things, 
      but the secret of life lies in never missing them. 
    ~ Gandhi ~

When the Czech playwright Karel Capek sat down in 1920 to write a play about humanoid machines that turn against their creators, he decided to call his imaginary creations 'robots', from the Czech word for 'slave labour'. Ever since then, our thinking about robots, whether fictional or real, has been dominated by the two key ideas in Capek's play. Firstly, robots are supposed to do the boring and difficult jobs that humans can't do or don't want to do. Secondly, robots are potentially dangerous.

These two ideas remain influential, but not everyone accepts them. The first dissenting voice was that of the great Russian-American science-fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, who was born the same year that Capek wrote his notorious play. In 1940, barely two decades later, while others were still slavishly reworking Capek's narrative about nasty robots taking over the world, Asimov was already asking what practical steps humanity might take to avoid this fate. And instead of assuming that robots would be confined to boring and dangerous jobs, Asimov imaged a future in which robots care for our children, and strike up friendships with us.

From the perspective of the early twenty-first century, it might seem that Capek was right and that Asimov was an idealistic dreamer. After all, most currently-existing robots are confined to doing nasty, boring and dangerous jobs, right? Wrong. According to the 2003 World Robotics Survey produced by the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, over a third of all the robots in the world are designed not to spray-paint cars or mow the lawn, but simply to entertain humans.

And the number is rising fast. It is quite possible, then, that the killer app for robots will turn out to be not the slave labour envisaged by Capek, but the social companionship imagined by Asimov.


Over the centuries, many in the British Isles have appealed to witches in times of need--to cure a toothache, concoct a love potion, or curse a neighbor. Witchcraft, the rituals of a number of pagan belief systems, was thought to offer control of the world through rites and incantations. 

Common as it has been over the past several centuries, the practice is secretive and there are few written records. It tends to be passed down through families and never revealed to outsiders. But archaeologist Jacqui Wood has unearthed evidence of more than 40 witchy rituals beneath her own front yard, bringing to light an unknown branch of witchcraft possibly still practiced today.

Wood's home is in the hamlet of Saveock Water in Cornwall, a county tucked in the far southwest corner of the country. For thousands of years people have raised crops and livestock in its fertile valleys, and its coastline of dramatic cliffs, secluded coves, and pounding surf was once a haunt for smugglers. Cornwall is a place time forgot; steeped in folklore, myth, and legend; and purported to be inhabited by pixies, fairies, and elves. So it should come as no surprise that it has also been home to the dark arts....

1640, the time of civil war in England and a very dangerous period to be practicing witchcraft. "Any sort of pagan worship was classified as witchcraft at that time, and punishable by death," says Wood. "If caught, they would have been burned at the stake." To make things worse, swans were royal symbols and property of the crown, so killing a swan was doubly risky.

Witch trials were common during the 16th and 17th centuries, and sometimes a few whispers were enough to see someone hanged. "During the 1650s more than 25 people were sent to Launceston Gaol [prison], in Cornwall, after a woman was accused by her neighbors of being a witch. She promptly implicated others in her alleged practice of the dark arts, some of whom were executed," says Jason Semmens, assistant curator at the Horsham Museum in Sussex and an expert on witchcraft in Cornwall during the 17th century.

And yet witchcraft remained popular, says Marion Gibson of Exeter University, a specialist on 16th- and 17th-century paganism. "Every village would have had people thought to be skilled in magic in one way or another and people in the area would go to them for their specialist services, just as we might go to a lawyer or plumber today."

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Women's History Magazine

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