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Technology tales from classical literature reveal the storied history of artificial intelligence

Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology

Adrienne Mayor
Princeton University Press
2018
291 pp.
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Long before the advent of modern robots and artificial intelligence (AI), automated technology existed in the storytelling and imaginations of ancient societies. 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 book, Gods and Robots, Adrienne Mayor draws comparisons between mythical androids and ancient robots and the AI of today.

Mayor is not the first expert to show how humanity’s ancient fascination with automatons can be seen throughout the stories and myths of classical literature. Historians of robotics point to unprecedented techniques—both imagined and innovated—that existed throughout antiquity. Most fascinating, Mayor notes, is the predictive nature of these devices. Odysseus’s pilotless Phaeacian ships, for example, which guided him back home to Ithaca, are reminiscent of modern GPS technology.

Through detailed storytelling and careful analysis of popular myths, Mayor urges readers to consider lessons learned from these stories as we set about creating a new world with AI. Like Pandora, an automaton programmed by Hephaestus to open a box and release evils into the world, AI could bring about unforeseen problems. Here, Mayor cites Microsoft’s 2016 experiment with the Twitter chatbot “Tay,” a neural network programmed to converse with Twitter users without requiring supervision. Only hours after going live, Tay succumbed to a group of followers that conspired to turn the chatbot into an internet troll. Microsoft’s iteration the following year suffered a similar fate.

WHITEMAY/GETTY IMAGES

In the absence of proper foresight, artificial intelligence, like
Pandora, could unleash unforeseen evils into the world.

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.

Instead, Mayor focuses on her own area of expertise: analyzing classical mythology. She recounts, for example, the story of the bronze robot Talos, an animated statue tasked with defending the Greek island of Crete from pirates. Here, she mentions a video game called “The Talos Principle,” in which players assume the role of a robot and solve philosophical puzzles, but she only briefly summarizes it. Because Mayor’s analyses are so superb, further exploration into the influence of such stories on makers of modern video games would likely have fascinated readers.

A few sentences to explain the difference between, say, machine learning and AI would have likewise been worthwhile. Such omissions make it difficult to identify the book’s intended audience. Although Mayor’s comparisons between modern technology and ancient myth might be of some interest to experts on AI, reading will require a strong curiosity for, if not previous knowledge of, classical literature and mythology.

Mayor often repeats herself in her writing—for example, offering multiple defenses for why an ancient creation may be considered an automaton. This repetition can feel as though she doesn’t trust readers to follow along with the connections she makes between technology and ancient myth. Yet instead of expanding on several of her more interesting points—the notion that ancient people believed that there were ways to create artificial life without the use of magic, for example—she tends to reference citations in the appendix. Such a dry approach falls short alongside her otherwise wonderful storytelling, thorough research, and impressive expertise.

When Pandora opens her box of evils, she releases hope by accident—inadvertently helping humanity learn to live in a world now corrupted by evil. Like this story, Gods and Robots is cautionary but optimistic. While warning of the risks that accompany the irresponsible deployment of technology, Mayor reassures readers that AI could indeed bring about many of the wonderful things that our ancestors imagined.

About the author

The reviewer is at MiraCosta College, Oceanside, CA 92056, USA. She reviews books on her website, readmorescience.com.