Robots and artificial intelligence have ancient mythological origins
The word “robot” was not coined until 1920, when it was used by Czech playwright Karel Čapek in the play RURWhere Rossumovi Univerzalni Roboti (Rossum’s universal robots In English). Robots – or things like them – have existed in myth (and to some extent, in fact) for thousands of years.
Automata in Mythology
Isma’il Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari, an engineer born in the 12th century in what is now Turkey, designed and built many complex machines, including fountains and a water clock – and even wrote a book on the science of building them: The book of knowledge of the ingenious mechanical devices. But it was probably his automatons which led some to call him “the father of robotics”. These included a mechanical servant who poured tea and a quartet of robots that played several different tunes and could be “programmed” to play different rhythms.
It is among the countless stories we know from myth and folklore, however, that we can find the clearest clues to our modern robots and artificial intelligence programs. For example, in Jewish folklore, the Golem is a clay man who magically comes to life when words are placed in the Golem’s mouth. Just like in the large language model AI programs which astonish us today, and even manage to persuade some people that they are sensitive, language is the animator – the ingredient that transforms a clay statue into a being.
But the robots in the myth go back even further. In his 2018 book Gods and robots: myths, machines and ancient dreams of technology, Adrienne Mayor describes how ancient cultures explored the idea of artificial life. The ancient Greeks were skilled in metallurgy and mechanics and created many automatons, including a puppet theater that could perform an entire play. These devices seemed to have inspired generations of storytellers.
Hephaestus, the Greek god of metalworking and technology, produced wondrous weapons for the gods, but also constructed a variety of beings that Mayor describes as “unborn facts”. In the Iliad, Homer recounts how Hephaestus fashioned servants of gold to help him in his forge. Earlier stories tell of another of Hephaestus’ creations, Talos, a giant bronze mechanical man who was, the mayor writes, “the first ‘robot’ to walk the earth.” Talos tirelessly patrolled the coasts of Crete to protect the island from invasion.
Talos’ role was to protect humans. But another of Hephaestus’ artificial life forms was intended for exactly the opposite purpose. After the Titan Prometheus gave mortals the gift of fire, Zeus was enraged. In revenge on mortals for accepting this gift, he tasked Hephaestus with fashioning a beautiful woman, Pandora, out of clay – an enchanting creation the mayor calls a “fem-bot”. Pandora was sent to earth, with a pot (in some translations it became a box), to be the wife of Epimetheus, brother of Prometheus. Although Prometheus warned Epimetheus not to accept gifts from Zeus, Epimetheus took Pandora as his wife, but forbade her to open the jar.
Wiley Zeus, however, had already instructed her (or you could say, program her) to open the jar. When she finally did, all the ills that afflict mankind – sickness, old age, madness, starvation – and all kinds of suffering and trouble were gone.
What can these myths teach us?
Although gods and magic were often involved in creations such as Talos and Pandora, Mayor argues that these ancient robots weren’t created simply by the fiat of a god. “These man-made beings were seen as manufactured products of technology, designed and constructed from scratch using the same materials and methods that human craftsmen used to make tools, artwork, buildings, and statues. ” These stories were, she writes, something like “old thought experiments, what-if scenarios.”
Today, our robots are real. But we’re still working through a lot of “what ifs” – and these ancient myths can help us do that. The mayor compares Stephen Hawking and others who warned us of the risks of artificial intelligence to Prometheus, who warned of the dangers of accepting gifts from the gods. But that warning has always been there; we just need to read the old myths to find it.