The dream of building minds is an old one. How old? You may be surprised to learn that the ancient Greeks had myths about robots. In “Gods and Robots,” Stanford science historian Adrienne Mayor describes how, more than 2,500 years before the modern computer, people told tales of autonomous machines that could labor, entertain, kill and seduce.
Among them was Talos, a bronze automaton forged by Hephaestus, god of metalworking, to guard the island of Crete. This machine, the size of the Statue of Liberty, patrolled the shore hurling boulders at invaders. (In 1948, the name Talos was given to a partly autonomous missile.) Hephaestus’s human descendant Daedalus was said to craft animated statues of animals so lifelike they needed to be tied up. Pandora, another of Hephaestus’s creations, was an android sent to curse humanity. She entices Epimetheus (“afterthought”) to let her into his home, where she lifts the lid on her woeful jar. (“Box” is a mistranslation.) While Pandora was a one-trick pony — narrow AI — “The Iliad” describes Hephaestus’s golden serving girls as having “sense and reason . . . [and] all the learning of the immortals.” AGI, and then some.
Eastern traditions also featured robots. Indian legend has mechanical soldiers defending the remains of the Buddha. And an ancient Chinese tale has a robotic man dance and flirt with royal concubines, angering King Mu before its creator reveals its artificial nature. That people could even picture such technical feats thousands of years ago may seem a stretch, but they had catapults, voting machines and other automated mechanisms from which to extrapolate. We don’t have anything near time travel, and we can still enjoy “The Terminator.”
In “Gods and Robots,” Mayor carefully examines secondary and source material — writings and artwork — to discern the ancients’ views on minds both supernatural and soulless. She takes an academic tone (her book and Sejnowski’s are from university presses) but draws occasional parallels to modern sci-fi movies such as “Blade Runner” and “Ex Machina,” arguing that our concerns about artificial life haven’t changed much. “The age-old stories,” she writes, “raise questions of free will, slavery, the origins of evil, man’s limits, and what it means to be human.” Can we control our creations? Can our creators control us? Are we robots — in Plato’s words “ingenious puppet[s] of the gods”?
Mayor wonders if Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates, who have warned that AI could kill us all, are “the Promethean Titans of our era.” She calls the stories in her book “good to think with.” And not just for us. Mayor foresees a day when AIs will read our fictions and come to understand us through them.
Although the Pygmalion myth is often presented in modern times as a romantic love story, the tale is an unsettling description of one of the first female android sex partners in Western history. It is not clear that Pygmalion’s passive, nameless living doll possesses consciousness, a voice, or agency, despite her “blushes.” Has Aphrodite transformed the perfect female statue into a real live woman, with her own independent mind—or is she now “just a better simulation?” The statue is described as an idealized woman, more perfect than any real female. So Pygmalion’s replica “surpasses human limits,” much like the sex replicants in the Blade Runner films that are advertised as “more human than human.” Ovid, notably, does not describe her skin and body as feeling lifelike. Instead Ovid compares her flesh to wax that becomes warm, soft, and malleable the more it is handled—in his words, her body “becomes useful by being used.”
Ovid ends his fairy tale with the marriage of Pygmalion and his nameless living statue. He even adds that they were blessed with a daughter named Paphos, a magical feat of reproduction intended to show that the ideal statue became a real, biological woman. Notably, the plot of the film Blade Runner 2049 turns on a similar magical reproduction of a replicant, the biological birth of a baby to the replicant Rachael, which is supposed to be impossible for artificial life forms.