Canning Town, London, UK. Photo by –@theeastlondonphotographer from Unsplash

Handmade Artifice

Exploring the etymology of artificial

I have been exploring the topic of artificial intelligence for more than a year writing about it every day, however I have yet to explore the word artificial to any great extent. One could say I have been superficial about my artificial engagement. There are many ways to explore the world, yet I opted for the ultimate modern cliché of Googling.

What I found in the bottom right corner grabbed my attention.


Interesting indeed, strange to think that the artificial came from what one could consider quite natural — using your hands.

Artifice can be described as a clever trick or something intended to deceive, according to the Cambridge dictionary.

However, in the 1530s, it meant: “workmanship, the making of something by craft or skill.”

From Middle French artifice “skill, cunning” (14c.)

From Latin artificium “a profession, trade, employment, craft; a making by art; a work of art.”

From artifex (genitive artificis) “craftsman, artist, master of an art” (music, acting, sculpting, etc.),

From stem of ars “art” (see art (n.)) + facere “to make, do” (from PIE root *dhe- “to set, put”).

Meaning “crafty device, trick” is from 1650s.

In terms of the use of artificial in full the first case seems to be related to a sunrise.

“Earliest use in English is in the phrase artificial day “part of the day from sunrise to sunset” (as opposed to the natural day of 24 hours). Meaning “made by man, contrived by human skill and labor” is from early 15c. The word was applied from 16c. to anything made in imitation of, or as a substitute for, what is natural, whether real (light, tears) or not (teeth, flowers).”

It is interesting that artifex (artist) is seen as the opposite.

There is a triumph of art over artifice.

A triumph of art over artist?

Trickery can mask our fear.

There is no room for trickery — for artifice.

Making the handmade artifice artificial

Why have we turned handcraft into artificial?

Does it not obscure to a certain extent the relationships that are needed to make artificial intelligence?

Hands used to craft in all steps of the process, although automation is getting involved these automations are maintained with human hands.

Is not artificial intelligence making something by art or skill?

I may not suddenly think our perceptions of this will turn, however it is worth noting that what began as handcraft or artistry turned into a term of further abstraction.

Perhaps it is trickery after all.

This is #500daysofAI and you are reading article 359. I am writing one new article about or related to artificial intelligence every day for 500 days. My focus for day 300–400 is about AI, hardware and the climate crisis.

AI Policy and Ethics at Student at University of Copenhagen MSc in Social Data Science. All views are my own.