GABBLER RECOMMENDS: ‘Three Stories You Absolutely Must Read to Learn About Automatons (And One You Definitely Shouldn’t)’ by Micaiah Johnson

Like any totally-normal-not-at-all-obsessed person, I spend a lot of time thinking about automatons.

Mostly, I shake my fist at the sky like an old man complaining that kids these days only like their sleek, human-passing, electric robots and no one cares about the wind, fire, water, and clockwork powered beings that preceded them. Is MonkBot not sexy? With that sweet, sweet segmented mouth action?

Automatons are usually thought of as no different from golems, living dolls, or patchwork girls. Just another category of animated being: nifty, sure, but so what? But automatons are, and have always been, important. And for two thousand years we knew that.

In the arc of human invention, automatons predate paper. That means before we thought “sure would be nice to write things in a convenient and portable manner” we thought “sure would be nice to have an inhuman creation in our shape that moves.” Then we immediately looked at this thing we’d made and instead of believing we’d become gods, we thought we’d created them. In ancient Rome and Egypt, as well as during the medieval period, automatons were representations of the divine. Even after they shifted into the realm of entertainment, automatons were singular wonders, art that brought joy to the viewer.

By remembering automatons we remember how the prioritization of art can become bulldozed by wants of industry, the miraculous giving way to the profitable. These creations are still essential to study, because when humans create in their own image they also create a tangible snapshot of the values and visions of the world at that moment. Sometimes, that image is of religious devotion. Sometimes, it’s an image of intellectual curiosity and wonder. But sometimes they are darker, cautionary tales exposing how power operates against the powerless.


GABBLER RECOMMENDS: “Mechanical Magic: Automata, a Lava Lamp, and a Self-Playing Piano | Show and Tell | Atlas Obscura” and “The Mechanical Magic of Scotland’s House of Automata | Show and Tell | Atlas Obscura”

On Reading the Talos Myth:

Talos was said to have been created by Hephaestus, killed by Medea’s knowledge. She knew to take out a bolt at his foot, causing him to die similarly to Achilles (the killing machine of The Iliad).

One account claims that Talos was actually a bull and not a humanoid figure, but, if we know anything about robots, it is that they can sometimes transform (so we won’t hold that as discrepancy):

On Talos, Adrienne Mayor, author of Gods and Robots, has this to say:

‘The “imaginary significance” of automata like Talos ‘in the premodern period had little to do with mechanistic ideas,” asserts Kang, who claims that Talos was “not a mechanical being but very much a living creature.” But ancient sources describe Talos as “made, not Born.” As we saw, Talos’s internal anatomy and movements were explained through mechanistic concepts, and this was echoed in ancient artistic depictions: What living creature has a metallic body and nonblood circulatory system sealed with a bolt? Moreover, the mythic accounts and fifth-century BC artworks illustrating the destruction of Talos show that his demised required technology, specifically the removal of the bolt.’ – Adrienne Mayor, “The Robot and the Witch.”

We have been asked in the past why Talos isn’t one of the Automata in the Circo del Herrero / The Blacksmith’s Circus Series. We had attempted to answer it here, but want to note that just like new phones, even “made, not-borns” can get an upgrade. Not all technology serves the same purpose or is powered the same. The Automata in The Automation do not have bolts in their ankles that can spill “nonblood.” They’ve a much sleeker design. They are an exclusive line of tech for a specific purpose that does not disregard previous iterations, but improves upon them.

Talos’s purpose was to protect Europa, throwing stones at any who came near. Zeus, in the form of a bull, kidnapped her and gave her Talos, so it is fitting that the robot would also have a bull form. If I had written the myth, perhaps it would have been Talos who kidnapped her for Zeus and held her captive. Anyone doing Zeus’s bidding would be an extension/avatar of Zeus himself, so not much recorded myth would be undermined except the fact the bull was said to be white. But what is color when the Greeks didn’t even have blue?

This would not be the only example of a bull being used “in stead” of someone else. It is a common motif. Daedalus’s bull for Pasiphae, mother of the Minotaur (through bestiality) is one, the Brazen Bull, perhaps, another.

What’s most interesting to me about Talos is how he is depicted in imagery. In the two most famous of his images, he has genitals. The Automation’s Automata do not so much have full genitals (read: sex), but they do have gender. Infertile they may be, I wonder if Talos was? Or are gentials, here, merely an expression of gender for the ancients (clothes lacking as indicators – pun intended)? Better yet, what if they are a symbol that reproduction can mean more than biological offspring? Aren’t all robots replicable in theory? That hardly seems unproductive to me.

By G.B. Gabbler

On Mythic Robots:

‘With a few exceptions, in the myths as they have survived from antiquity, the inner workings and power sources of automata are not described but left to our imagination. In effect, this nontransparency renders the divinely crafted contrivances analogous to what we call “black box” technology, machines whose interior working are mysterious. Arthur C. Clarke’s famous dictum comes to mind: the more advanced the technology, the more it seems like magic. Ironically, in modern technolculture, most people are at a loss to explain how the appliances of their daily life,  fro smartphones and laptops to automobiles, actually work, not to mention nuclear submarines or rockets. We know these are manufactured artifacts, designed by ingenious inventors and assembled in factories, but they might as well be magic. It is often remarked that human intelligence itself is kin of a  black box. And we are now entering a new level of pervasive black box technology: machine learning soon will allow Artificial Intelligence entities to amass, select, and interpret massive sets of data to make decisions and act on their own, with no human oversight or understanding go the process… In a way, we will come full circle to the earliest myths about awesome, inscrutable artificial life and biotechne.’  – Adriene Mayor, “Made, Not Born.”


GABBLER RECOMMENDS: ‘Dreaming of artificial intelligence in ancient Greece and Silicon Valley’ by Matthew Hutson

An excerpt from the article:

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.