From ‘Robotics: Hephaestus does it again Inaugural lecture’ by Jean-Paul Laumond

“It was when I was preparing this lecture that I discovered that roboticists have a god: Hephaestus. In Greek mythology, Hephaestus was an ingenious, talented craftsman, known for the remarkable weapons he made. But he also made wheelchairs that moved about on their own (basically, mobile robots) and golden servants that helped him to move about (basically, helper robots), and he even made Pandora, a clay statue to whom Athena gave life. He had a tumultuous love life, as attested by the following passage by Apollodorus, a chronicler from the second century BCE:

Athena visited Hephaistos, wanting to fashion some arms. But Hephaistos, who had been deserted by Aphrodite, yielded to his desire for Athena and began to chase after her, while the goddess for her part tried to escape. When he caught up with her at the expense of much effort (for he was lame), he tried to make love to her. But she, being chaste and a virgin, would not permit it, and he ejaculated over the goddess’s leg. In disgust, she wiped the semen away with a piece of wool and threw it to the ground. As she was fleeing…

While Hephaestus is the god of doing, Athena, who appears here as the one who calls the tune, is the goddess of knowing or —to protect me from reprimands from the exegetes, especially in this assembly— let me consider her as such for the purpose this lecture. Hephaestus was thus seeking to possess Athena. He was unable to do so. Could the doing not aspire to the knowing? A hard blow for the roboticist.

Robotics stems from this tension. Although the myth contradicts a current tendency to confuse science and technology, it does nevertheless reflects my own experience regarding innovation —experience that I might sum up as follows: even though doing is not understanding, understanding enables one to do, but unfortunately, not always. And even though one may very well do without understanding, doing also enables one to have tools —sometimes surprising ones— for understanding.

Hephaestus is starting all over again with new Pandoras. They are no longer of clay, but mecatronic. And they are animated. The roboticist keeps on asking the question of autonomy: what adaptability can we hope to give these new machines? The analogy between humans and machines has to be made23; it cannot be avoided. In the end, does Hephaestus have the keys to knowledge? With his machines that adapt, that “decide” on their actions, what can he tell us about our own “functioning”? The question is both dangerous and beautiful.

Let us bear in mind the image of the myth —and it is only an image, for even if the roboticist can identify with Hephaestus and can shape Pandora out of clay, he is neither Athena nor Geppetto. He will never give any humanity to clay or wood. A robot is a machine controlled by a computer; nothing else. Although animated, it remains and will remain an inanimate object without a soul that becomes attached to our soul [and without] the power of lovei. Let us allow the demi-gods to talk, let us enjoy works by Fritz Lang and Mary Shelley, and let us not be afraid. But are we actually anxious? That is not so sure. In any case, our Japanese friends aren’t, they who are so different from us; they for whom union is possible.”



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