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Bronze men & fembots: AI in Greek mythology

Tamara Kerrill Field

We tend to think of artificial intelligence as a modern concept, an idea sprung from advancing technology and evolving possibilities. As it turns out, humans have been examining the concept of manufactured, “thinking” beings for thousands of years, Stanford University scholar Adrienne Mayor says.

Ancient Greek mythology is filled with bronze androids, cunning fembots, gnashing metal bulls, and hundreds of other “automata”, Mayor wrote in her 2018 book Gods and Robots.

“I think human beings are hardwired to try to imitate nature, maybe even try to improve upon it, to be like gods,” Mayor told me in a recent conversation. “The common theme is that the maker cannot anticipate all the possibilities and vulnerabilities that come up as a result of these kinds of semi-autonomous creations. This is a story that has been told for a very long time, for millennia — possibly for hundreds of millennia.”

Mayor, a research scholar in Stanford University’s Department of Classics, is a historian of ancient science who investigates natural knowledge contained in pre-scientific myths and oral traditions.

“Myths reinforce the notion that imagination is the spirit that unites myth and science,” Mayor wrote in the preface to Gods and Robots. Automata in myth are not “animated by gods or magic. They are manufactured technology thought of and developed from scratch. The common denominator is that they were made, not born. They mark the border between human and non-human, natural and unnatural.”

One of the first-known recorded automon myths is set in 5,000-year-old Minoan Crete and written down in the 8th Century BCE.

Talos, a giant, bronze, automated man, was forged by the blacksmith god Hephestus on a commission from Zeus who wished to gift the artificial man to his son, King Minos of Crete. For years afterwards, at the king’s direction, Talos marched around the island three times a day, hurling boulders at enemy ships. In close combat, Talos would heat up his metal skin and roast invaders in a red-hot embrace. All was going as planned until Jason showed up with the Argonauts.

Unable to catch a wind, Jason and his collection of heroes anchored their ship in a Cretan bay. Jason was tired and victorious, having just won the golden fleece, and not in the mood for Talos and his rock flinging. He turned to the sorceress Medea (who had already helped him steal the fleece) for a solution. Madea knew that the giant Bronze man was powered by a tiny vein of gods’ blood secured by a nail at his ankle. With this clever piece of technology, Hephestus had planned for Talos to be immortal.

Madea changed up the game. The sorceress looked directly into Talos’s metal eyes, bewitching him. She told him to step directly onto a sharp rock, which he did, ripping open his ankle and draining the vein. Talos fell, broken beyond repair, into a heap on the beach.

“This is not what Hephestus intended,” Mayor said. “Talos makes an unexpected decision based on Madea’s commands. This is a good lesson for those creating AI: no matter how superior your tech, there’s always going to be a hacker, and you can’t anticipate all vulnerabilities.”

The Ancients had no Imitation Game, but Mayor says Greek thinkers were puzzling out some of the same questions raised by Alan Turing in his seminal Oxford University paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence.” Turing hypothesised that humans eventually would fabricate AI machines that would learn to program themselves and mimic human behaviour so well that they would become something akin to thinking beings.

“We like to believe that Man is in some subtle way superior to the rest of creation. It is best if he can be shown to be necessarily superior, for then there is no danger of him losing his commanding position,” Turing wrote. “I do not think that this argument is sufficiently substantial to require refutation. Consolation would be more appropriate: perhaps this should be sought in the transmigration of souls.”

One Greek myth, in particular, explores the complexities inherent in building machines in our own image. Many are familiar with sanitised versions of Pandora’s box, in which the world’s first woman unwittingly unleashes a plague of evils onto humankind.

In poet Hesiod’s original 8th Century BCE version of the story, Pandora is not a human innocent, but a fully-programmed artificial woman, one of the hundreds of mechanical beings Hephestus forged on Zeus’s orders. Zeus was in Olympus-sized revenge mode because the Titan god Prometheus had given humans the divine secret of fire, a gift Zeus believed should be reserved for gods alone. In his fury, Zeus wanted the whole of humanity destroyed, so android Pandora was given a jar of evils and a mission: wheedle your way into the society of men and pop the lid.

“This Pandora is a fembot, related more to artificial intelligence than humans. Zeus forces Hephestus to manufacture Pandora for a specific use,” Mayor said. “But once these semi-autonomous beings are released by their makers into the human realm, look out. There will be unintended consequences. Neither the maker nor the user is entirely sure how decisions are being made.”

The name Pandora means “all gifts”, and gifted Pandora was. Several of the 12 Olympians “uploaded” traits to Zeus’s comely android to ensure the mission’s success: seduction, cunning, beauty, intelligence, the art of the con. Zeus presents Pandora as a bride to Prometheus’s weak-minded brother, Epimetheus. (The Titan brother was charged with watching over man after Zeus had bound Prometheus to a rock and sent a mechanical eagle to feed on his liver.)

Prometheus had warned Epimetheus not to accept any gifts from Zeus, but the brother forgot, so dazzled was he by Pandora’s kalon kakon, an ancient Greek phrase that means “evil hidden in beauty”.

Having gained Epimetheus’ trust and settled into the human realm, Pandora unleashed the jar’s contents as she had been programmed to do. Greed, Suffering, Illness, and Hardship streamed from the vessel and onto the backs of men. But then something happened that Zeus had not intended, a true twist on the popularised version of the myth: Pandora closed the jar before Hope could escape. The mistake (or technical glitch), saved humankind from destruction.

Had Hope been released, Heriod explained later, humans would have been bestowed with false hope, a mass deception that would sap away vigilance and preparedness. Humans would become lazy and prone to seduction by evil. With pure Hope trapped in the jar, humans could endure.

Unpacking the meanings in Hesiod’s Pandora’s Box is thesis-worthy. Mayor understands this. Pushing aside the divine and examining the myth from a purely human standpoint, Mayor posits that the meaning might be found in our overestimation of our smarts and self-knowledge. Zeus not only failed to anticipate myriad outcomes but was unable to envision a scenario in which humans could handle the evils unleashed.

“We’re trying to imitate the human mind,” Mayor said, “and we don’t understand the human mind.”

When Gods and Robots came out, she was surprised by the flood of speaking invitations that came from major technology companies, venture capitalists, and AI engineers.

What she told them was that the perceived failure of automatons in these myths comes down to humans’ (or gods’) inability to control outcome. The actions both of humans and of the machines created in their image are as unpredictable as they are unstable.

Mayor turns to a third myth in service of that point: Icarus. Many people have some familiarity with Icarus and his fatal flight too close to the sun. Less often remembered is his father, Daedalus, who fashioned two novel pairs of artificial wings from feathers and wax, to spring them both from King Minos’s deadly minotaur labyrinth. Daedalus, an architect and master craftsman, is a technology whiz known for his precision and ingenuity.

While in flight above the Aegean Sea, Daedalus warns Icarus of the technology’s shortcomings, Mayor explained to the scholarly journal AEI.

“‘Don’t fly too high, and don’t fly too low. You want to maintain a moderate flight pattern.’ And Icarus, of course, is a young man. He’s enchanted by the sensation of flying,” Mayor said. “He flies much too high and the sun melts the wax that’s holding the feathers together and he plunges into the ocean.”

It’s sad, but Daedalus gets it. The death was caused by user error; the technology was not to blame.

“Daedalus has to stop and mourn his son’s death and bury him,” she said, “but then he actually puts on the wings and flies all the way to Sicily.”

Image by MattinTheWorld

Tamara Kerrill Field’s writing and commentary on the intersection of race, politics and socioeconomics has been featured in USNews & World Report, the Chicago Tribune, NPR, PBS NewsHour, and other outlets. She lives in Portland, ME.