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High-Technology Discovered in Classical Mythology Reveals The Ancient Origins of Artificial Intelligence

For the last 70 years science fiction writers and Hollywood movie directors have explored the place of robots and artificial intelligence (AI) in the future of humankind. But automated technologies with greater than human intelligence were first conceptualized in the imaginations of people in ancient societies and were woven into their folkloric systems, according to a highly-original new book.

Titled Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology , the author, Dr Adrienne Mayor of Stanford University is, according to the university website, “an independent folklorist/historian of science investigating natural knowledge contained in pre-scientific myths and oral traditions.” In a nutshell, Dr Mayor can be described as “a force” of mythological and folkloric understanding and her previous works have been featured on NPR, BBC, History Channel, Smithsonian and National Geographic. Now, this new book offers readers comparisons between the legendary figures of ancient myths and the AI driven robots of today which are building tomorrow’s world.

Vulcan (Hephaestus). Engraving by E. Jeaurat, 1716. (CC BY 4.0)

Vulcan (Hephaestus). Engraving by E. Jeaurat, 1716. ( CC BY 4.0 )

From Timeworn Stories to Our Modern Zeitgeist

While the corridors of universities and academic institutions are teaming with thousands of professors skilled with powerful oratory abilities ‘in classic teaching environments,’ Dr Mayor has a quality that must be a thing of great envy with her peer group, that rare skill of “original storytelling” in written academic form. Not only does her book carefully analyze classic myths in an easy to digest way for the lay-reader, but all the way her methodology and observational stances adhere to the scientific method of investigation. However, where so many academic writers deliver dry base facts and figures with no context in the real world, Dr Mayor subtly prompts readers to project the archetypal messages in timeworn stories into our modern zeitgeist, as we build a new world with AI at the fore.

Medeia and Talus by Sybil Tawse. (Public Domain)

Medeia and Talus by Sybil Tawse. ( Public Domain )

Killer Androids and Wicked Fembots

According to a report about the new book in The Daily Mail , Dr Mayor said “ancient people envisioned many of the technology trends we grapple with today including killer androids, driverless technology, GPS and AI-powered helper robots.” Illustrating her hypothesis, the creations of Hephaestus, the god of metalworking and an invention in Homer’s Iliad , were “predictions of the rise of humanoid robots.” An article about Mayor’s research in Greek Reporter said AI-powered helper robots and killer androids, according to Dr Mayor, “appear in tales about Jason and the Argonauts, Medea, Daedalus and Prometheus” and also the 'bronze killer-robot' Talos who guarded the island of Crete. Furthermore, the legendary Pandora, who Dr Mayor describes as a 'wicked AI fembot’ like the ‘replicant’ in the blockbuster movie Blade Runner, had been programmed to ‘release eternal suffering upon humanity’ and “Though the Greeks did not know how technology would work, they could foreshadow its rise in society,” said Mayor.

Pandora trying to close the box that she had opened out of curiosity. (Public Domain)

Pandora trying to close the box that she had opened out of curiosity. ( Public Domain )

Future Technology Speculations

A book review on Science Mag , by Sarah Olson, softly criticized Dr Mayor saying “Despite her extensive knowledge of ancient mythology, Mayor does little to demonstrate an understanding of modern AI, neural networks, and machine learning; the chatbots are among only a handful of examples of modern technology she explores.” While Olson’s observation is valid, looking at it another way, isn’t this actually a veiled credit to the author? So often modern authors, especially scientific writers, speculate into complicated fields with their core understanding which dilutes the “heart” of their research. Contrary to this, it would appear Dr Mayor realized her speculations into future technologies including AI would only ever be ‘speculations’ and rather than opening herself up to the scathing reviews of silicone valley tech geeks, she loyally focused her research on her specialist subject, which is quite clearly classical mythology.

The Science Mag article also criticized Mayor for not having added “a few sentences to explain the difference between, say, machine learning and AI,” which the reviewer claims “makes it difficult for readers to identify the book’s intended audience.” Again, this is possibly another credit to the author. Here’s why. In our hyper-commercialized world seldom do authors write ‘honest’ books simply because they believe a story “needs to be written.” Because Dr Mayor's book was not written for a defined audience it will be remembered as a brave scientific sentinel that will undoubtedly ‘find’ or ‘make’ its readership, organically, over time.

When you read this book, the ultimate takeaway is that the observations are un-skewed and non-sensationalized, neither are they dumbed down to fit into a publisher’s or predetermined audience. And when a book delivers more suggestions and questions than answers, like this one, it immediately becomes a refreshingly non-egotistical trip through classic mythology. What is more, the author has left sufficient space for readers to indulge in their “own” ideas and conclusions based on “their” understanding of technology. Thus, what has actually been published is more than a book, and the ‘work’ marks a new generation of “psychologically interactive” mythological learning. You finish the story Dr Mayor began.

A Future Dominated by Automated Technologies?

An article about Dr Mayor’s book on News said the author is “urging leading tech bosses to closely analyze the stories and characters of Greek mythology as we close in on a future dominated by automated technologies.” Gods and Robots  offers optimistic insights with cautionary twists while warning of the potential risks of uncontrolled future technologies, and it is clear that Dr Mayor believes herself that AI might one day deliver the mythological worlds our ancient ancestors imagined and immortalized in their folk stories.

Top image: Was artificial intelligence predicted by the Greeks?  Source: pict rider via Fotolia

By Ashley Cowie

Comments

In the romantic epic seven beauties by nizami ganjavi, a persian poet of 12th century, a beautiful princess makes dozens of Robot-like guards for her castle out of rocks and metals. Nobody knows how to disable this android army, until a wise man tells a young man how to disable them.

Recently, a very interesting museum of "real" ancient Greek technology was opened in the center of Athens. See it at http://kotsanas.com/gb/. As about the mysterious ships of Phaeacians, I personaly believe that there was nothing more than the knowledge of compass (kept as a secret and lost thereafter) and some boasting from the part of Antinoos (king of Phaeacians) towards Odysseus. Actually this is the main subject of a book that I'm going to publish soon, but an extract can be found in my blog "geometax12.blogspot.com", in Greek.

Adrienne Mayor's picture

The wonderful Kotsanas Museum is cited in my book and some images from the museum are included in “Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology” (Princeton 2018)

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