More than 2,500 years ago, long before medieval automata, and centuries before technology made self-moving devices possible, Greek mythology was exploring ideas about creating artificial life.
Hephaestus, blacksmith of the mythical Greek gods, fashioned mechanical serving maids from gold and endowed them with learning, reason, and skill in Homer’s Iliad. Designed to anticipate their master’s requests and act on them without instruction, the Golden Maidens share similarities with modern machine learning, which allows AI to learn from experience without being explicitly programmed.
The possibility of AI servants continues to tantalize the modern imagination, resulting in household automatons such as the Roomba robot vacuum and Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa. One could imagine a future iteration of Alexa as a fully automatic robot, perhaps washing our dishes or reminding us to pick up the kids after school. In her new richly illustrated book, ‘Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology’., American Historian Adrienne Mayor, tells the fascinating story of how ancient Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese myths envisioned artificial life, automata, self-moving devices, and human enhancements and draws comparisons between mythical androids and ancient robots and the AI of today.
Though the Greeks did not know how technology would work, they could foreshadow its rise in society, Dr Mayor claims.
Odysseus’s pilotless Phaeacian ships, for example, which guided him back home to Ithaca, draw parallels with modern GPS technology. Homer’s epic poem also describes self-driving wheeled tripods that carry nectar and ambrosia, a prediction of modern autonomous delivery services. Dr Mayor urges top tech bosses to closely analyze the stories of the Greeks as we close in on a future dominated by automated technologies.
She says that like Pandora, who was programmed by Hephaestus to open a box and release evils into the world, AI could present unforeseen problems for humanity. But just as Pandora’s box releases hope to humanity, Dr Mayor says AI could indeed bring positive changes – provided it is kept under control.