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5 questions for Adrienne Mayor about Ancient Greece’s technological visions of the future

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How did the ancient Greeks think about technology? Were they techno-optimists or pessimists? How do their myths – of Pandora, Odysseus, Talos, and Icarus – parallel to the technological possibilities that we’ve uncovered in the present? And what can we learn from these narratives? In this episode, I explore these questions and more with Dr. Adrienne Mayor, the author of Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology.

Adrienne Mayor is a folklorist and historian of ancient science who investigates natural knowledge contained in pre-scientific myths and oral traditions. She is the Berggruen Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, and her research looks at ancient “folk science” precursors, alternatives, and parallels to modern scientific methods. Below is an abbreviated transcript of our conversation.  You can download the episode here, and don’t forget to subscribe to my podcast on iTunes or Stitcher. Tell your friends, leave a review.

Pethokoukis: I understand how stories about thunder gods or sun gods or sea gods might begin. It seems very obvious; they’re keying off nature. But how did the Greeks imagine robots and even interpret the stories as questions of whether or not they were fully human? We do this with stories like Blade Runner or Star Trek, so how did the Greeks do it?

Mayor: All we can do is speculate according to the stories that have actually survived for 2,700 years since the time of Homer. For my book, I asked, “Who first imagined robots, automatons, human enhancements, and even ancient versions of AI?” Historians of science traced the first working automatons to the Middle Ages, but I wondered if it was possible that the concepts of self-driving devices, automatons, and other kinds of artificial life could be imagined long before the technology made them possible. I did find that as early as the time of Homer.

Now, we’re talking about Homer and Hesiod writing down oral traditions that existed before they began writing, which was between about 750 and 650 BC. So we’re talking about more than 2700 years ago in the ancient Greek myths, people were already envisioning how one would maybe imitate, augment, and even surpass nature through something that the Greeks might call biotechne, “life through craft.” I think those myths about automatons and animated devices allowed people in ancient times to let their imaginations soar by describing the marvels that the god of invention, Hephaestus, or the craftsman Daedalus the guy who made the wings for himself and his son — made. They would let their imaginations picture how these gods could use the same familiar materials, tools, and implements that an ordinary blacksmith or artisan would be using on Earth in that time, but with astounding results because they’re gods.

So it allowed people to ponder how one would be able to fabricate artificial life, an android, or a self-moving device, or even machines if only you possessed the divine powers and ingenuity of God that could make those wonders. And it’s implied that they were questioning whether or not they were really just tools that performed a task because of the way they are made. There are wild creatures throughout mythology, but the distinction is that these ones were maker-projects. They’re not just some inert matter that’s brought to life by magic, by a magical spell, or by God’s command. We imagine Hephaestus actually building this giant, bronze man called Talos, and it’s a self-moving metal android made of bronze.

So we can understand how they might have imagined a high-tech world, but what do the stories — like Talos’, for instance — show about how the Greeks felt about technology?

I think they were probably more pessimistic than we might expect. We might imagine that they thought that all of these robotic beings, automatons, androids, and self-moving devices were optimistic visions of the future. Actually, the Greeks tended to look backwards at high technology, imagining that gods and people in antiquity might have had skills that surpass what people could do today. They also had trepidations and doubts about automatons such as Talos interacting with humans.

He’s made by the god Hephaestus to defend King Minos’ kingdom of Crete, and he’s commissioned by the tyrannical king of the gods, Zeus, for King Minos who is also a tyrant on Crete. This is a very ancient story goes that back to about 750 BC. Talos was described as “made, not born.”

He supposedly marched around the island of Crete three times a day. Some people have said. “Well, that means he went 500 miles an hour.” Well, we’re talking about ancient science fictions here. He was programmed to recognize approaching strange ships, and when he spotted a ship approaching the coast, he would pick up boulders and throw these at the invaders. But if they did manage to get ashore in close combat, this bronze robot could heat his metal body red hot and then crush the enemies to his chest to roast them alive.

Jason and the Argonauts encounter Talos on their return from the quest for the Golden Fleece and it was the witch Madea — I call her a kind of techno wizard — who figured out how to neutralize and destroy this giant bronze robot. She used both persuasion and technology. And we know that Talos fits the definition of a robot, actually, because we know his inner workings. It’s astounding that they thought about his inner workings and they said that he had a single artery or tube; they actually use a biological term for artery or vein, and what pulses in that is his power source. His power source is ichor, which is the life fluid of the gods. They don’t have blood, they have ichor flowing in their veins — that’s what makes them immortal.

So, Madea thinks, “Well, he may have ichor flowing in him.” But the whole system is sealed by a bronze bolt on his ankle. So Madea figures out, “If I can get him to let me remove that bolt, all the ichor will flow out and he will die.” So the myth is really complex because it tells us that he’s imagined as a kind of cyborg.

He’s got humanoid features — he’s able to be persuaded by Madea. She says, “I’ll make you invulnerable, but you have to let me remove the bolt,” and he agrees to that. And this is not what the maker or the person who deployed this bronze automaton had expected. Talos was supposed to perform a perpetual task of protecting the island of Crete. They didn’t expect him to develop his own desires and make decisions on his own, and yet Madea gambles that he has developed that human desire and that is his downfall.

So what’s interesting is that not only is he half-human half-machine in the way we imagined cyborgs — and I do refer to a lot of different movies because I think ancient myths are their cultural dreams and science fictions. The other message there is that he was built by technology, but he’s taken down by someone who could hack his technology, so there’s always going to be a Madea who can figure out the vulnerabilities.

So interestingly, with our modern version of techno-pessimism we often refer to emerging technology — from AI to genetics — as a Pandora’s Box to explain our suspicions. It’s meant to carry the message: be careful what you wish for. You spend an entire chapter on that story, so you’re saying there’s more to it than just the easy lesson. So, tell me a bit more about that story.

It’s even more relevant than I think most people realize because, as I say, most people are thinking of the Pandora from European fairy tales. She was a tragically curious young woman who opens this sealed jar or box and inadvertently releases eternal misery on mankind. But the story is actually much more nefarious and far more relevant to debates today about AI and machine learning than most people realize.

Her story was first told in the time of Homer. In the original telling of the story, Pandora’s not some innocent girl who gives in to the temptation to open this forbidden jar or box. Instead, she was described, like Talos, as “made, not born.” That distinction shows that she was manufactured by the god Hephaestus. She was commissioned by Zeus according to his designs, and Zeus said, “I want you to build me an artificial woman who will be evil hidden in beauty, or evil disguised as beauty.” This is an artificial being. Almost a fembot, actually.

Her purpose is to entrap mortals into accepting her into their society as a real woman, and she has one mission once she has insinuated herself into human society. Her one mission is to open that jar — curiosity is never mentioned. She has a mission to open the jar and release everything that’s in the jar and it’s filled with misfortune, suffering, death, and disease — all the misfortunes that plague humankind forever.

So, Pandora’s Box is really even more dangerous than people realize. It’s a black box of course, and that’s how many people see AI technology evolving. We won’t know the decisions that AI is going to be making with its vast databases. Those will be obscure not only to the users but to the makers of AI, so I think Pandora’s story is quite relevant. And of course everyone says, “Well yes, but what about the last entity that was in that box?”

It was Hope! And we think of all the old illustrations that we have from our fairytale books. They show Hope as a kind of fairy surrounded by light who brings comfort to human beings because of what’s been released from the box. But for the ancient Greeks, Hope was the most devastating thing in the bottom of the Box.

Hope was not something good for the ancient Greeks; Hope is something that deprives you of the ability to look forward, to have foresight. So Hope was personified as a young woman with a kind of crooked, mocking smile on her face.

I wonder if Pandora’s Box is too influential a myth, in that it generates too much pessimism about technology. Did the Greeks have any cause for optimism in their stories about technology?

So one positive myth appears in Homer’s Odyssey, and Odysseus is yearning to reach his homeland after the Trojan War. The Trojan War took 10 years. He’s now been wandering for 10 more years trying to get back and he visits the mysteriously advanced society of the Phaeacians ruled by King Alcinous. This king has a fleet of unsinkable ships that do not need pilots or navigators or rowers. They don’t have any rudders. They have no oars. They’re steered, says Homer, by thought alone, and King Alcinous tells Odysseus, “Well, all you have to do is tell the ship the name of the city and it will devise the route and transport you to your home island of Ithaca.” He says that they’re unsinkable, they can travel the oceans in any kind of weather, and they will not be affected by the currents or the bad climate, and they will return to him the next day.

So, I mean you think of this — this is the ancient Greeks imagining ships with some sort of vast archive of virtual maps and navigation charts of the entire known ancient world, and Odysseus marvels in the Odyssey at the steady, swift progress of this ship that is carrying him across the Mediterranean to his home island of Ithaca and here we have some technology that’s interacting with, supposedly, humans on Earth and it’s all for the good. There’s nothing bad in that story at all. Odysseus gets home, the ship returns to the king, and we have an ancient version of GPS and automatic navigation systems.

The story of Daedalus and Icarus is also not as negative on human enhancement technologies as one might expect. Daedalus is imprisoned in the in the Labyrinth that he built for the Minotaur for King Minos. King Minos imprisons Daedalus and his son in in The Labyrinth, and Daedalus figures out that, “If only I could fly like a bird, we could escape.” And he actually manufactures imitation bird wings for himself and his son and they fly away from Crete.

What’s interesting is that this is a story of technology, once again, a human enhancement. They can now fly, but he warns of the shortcomings — the potential shortcomings — of the technology. Don’t fly too high, and don’t fly too low. You want to maintain a moderate flight pattern, here. And Icarus of course is a young man. He’s enchanted by the by the sensation of flying. He flies much too high and the sun melts the wax that’s holding the feathers together and he plunges into the ocean. And Daedalus has to stop and mourn his son’s death and bury him, but then he actually puts on the wings and flies all the way to Sicily.

But the message there isn’t to avoid the enhancements, but rather to do it in a thoughtful, balanced manner. Don’t try to surpass the specifications of the technology; because the wings were successful, but at a very high cost.

What would be the best lessons for us — or even for future AI trying to learn about humanity — to take away from the Greek perspective on technology?

One possible lesson comes from an addendum to the Pandora story. I mentioned that Pandora was brought down to earth to insinuate herself into human society. She was given as a bride to Prometheus’ (the man who brought the divine technology of fire to humankind) brother, Epimetheus, and I think the Greeks had a sense of humor about these myths.

I mean, the name Prometheus means “foresight,” and the name of his brother Epimetheus, it means “hindsight,” the inability to look forward. And I think that the ancient Greeks today, if they traveled to Silicon Valley, would say, “Be a Promethean, look forward. Don’t be Epimetheus.” Because Prometheus tried to warn his brother, “Don’t accept this gift. You don’t know who is sending it. Is Zeus sending it? Don’t trust a gift from Zeus. And who knows what’s in that jar she’s got?”

Epimetheus went for the short-term gains. He didn’t look ahead. And I think I think they would say, “Be Promethean, don’t be Epimethean.”

That lesson is for us right now, but I know that some AI thinkers and experimenters are working, trying to teach some actual AI about humanity by feeding them stories and having them read our stories. And I think maybe some of the ancient myths might be valuable to include in the stories that they’re teaching AI.

Personally, I would want to teach an AI the story of Talos, because he’s so complex — partly human and partly machine, and the reactions of the humans around him are complex and fearful. And then of course the story of Pandora; I think that we might be able to teach AI why we fear them. [laughs]

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