This week, Oxford University announced that American billionaire and philanthropist Stephen A. Schwarzman had given the university its largest cash donation yet—£150 million—to fund (among other things) an institution to investigate the ethics of artificial intelligence. Schwarzman said that universities need to serve as advisers on the ethics of artificial intelligence and technological advances. While it is certainly true that the technology has moved rapidly ahead of the legislation that patrols it, this is hardly the first time people have thought about the ethics of AI. As any sci-fi buff will tell you, we have been mulling over the ethical ramifications of technologies we didn’t possess for a century. What they might not know, however, is that people have been thinking about the potentials and pitfalls of the robot world for thousands of years.
In Greek mythology the first “robot” to walk the earth was the bronze giant Talos. Talos was one of a trinity of technological advanced gifts bequeathed by Zeus to his son Minos, the first king of Crete. An anthropomorphic machine, Talos would patrol the coastline of Crete three times a day, keeping watch for pirates. He would hurl boulders at foreign ships and, if he identified a “stranger,” would clutch them to his chest, heat up his bronze torso, and roast his captive alive.
Talos proved something of a challenge for Jason when he, the Argonauts, and his wife Medea arrived on the island. In the end it was Medea who came to Jason’s rescue. She used telepathy to confuse the metal giant and disorient him. The giant stumbles around and a rock strikes against the bolt that dams the single “vein” in his ankle. The bolt is dislodged, the giant’s life force drains out of him, and he dies.
This is but one example of ancient imaginings of biotech that appears in the recently published and beautifully written book, Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology. Throughout the book, the medical historian and classicist Adrienne Mayor charts the history of technological dreaming in the ancient world, from robot giants to lifelike statues that actually moved, or self-piloted boats. Some of this mythological tech (like the moving statues) had its basis in real-life engineering, while other parts, like Pygmalion’s vivified ivory sex-doll, does not.
The most talented craftsman in ancient thought was undoubtedly Hephaestus, the god of the forge. Not only did he make Talos, he helped craft Pandora (who is shown in ancient artwork as almost mechanically stilted), and had his own team of “living statues” of golden handmaidens. In the Iliad, when Thetis goes to visit Hephaestus in his workshop she observes the maidens who “moved quickly, bustling around their master like living women.” Hephaestus had endowed these women with “mind (our equivalent of thinking), wits, voice, and vigor” as well as the knowledge and skill sets of the immortal gods. Mayor remarks, “they are endowed with what AI specialists term ‘augmented intelligence’ based on ‘big data’ and ‘machine learning’.” They even served as a storehouse, you might say database, of divine knowledge.
According to Homer, there was a people known as the Phaeacians who possessed ships that were steered exclusively by thought and words. King Alcinous, who permits Odysseus to use one of these ships, says that the ships merely “need to be told his city and country and they will devise the route accordingly.” As Mayor wryly notes, the ancient Greeks appear to have dreamt of something like GPS. Others were said to have created doors that moved automatically, anticipating our modern distaste for getting out of our cars with almost prophetic skill.
Not every technological device or biotechnical innovation had such lofty purposes. Today, modern historians of robotics divide automata by functionality: they exist for the purpose of entertainment, labor, or sex. Arguably the most disturbing case of an ancient “sexbot” involves Queen Pasiphae, the wife of King Minos of Crete. Pasiphae was the jealous sort and cast a spell over her husband so that if he tried to have sex with another woman he would ejaculate scorpions, snakes, and millipedes. Shockingly, that’s not the gross part of this story. Zeus, whose affinity for extramarital affairs is well-known, retaliated on Minos’ behalf by cursing Pasiphae with the desire to copulate with one of Minos’ bulls (an attractive bull, if it helps). Bulls, however, are not so interested in women. Pasiphae turned to the brilliant sculptor and craftsman Daedalus for assistance. Daedalus constructed a realistic wooden cow into which the queen could clamber and present herself to the bull on all fours. The result of Pasiphae’s encounters with the bull was the half-human half-bull child better known to us as the Minotaur.
Even in the ancient world, people doubted the truth of this story. Those who defended it responded that realistic imitations of other animals often provoked their biological counterparts to attempt to mount them. But as Mayor remarks, “Daedalus’s realistic, life-size sex toy presents a remarkable form of ancient technepornography.” The story was so popular that it appeared in frescoes and mosaics centuries later. It was even popular in medieval artwork, which focused on the supposed romance between the bull and his human lover.
Stories like this are not unique to the Greeks and Romans. Mayor relates a story about an artificial man created by the craftsman Yen Shih during the reign of King Mu of the Zhou dynasty of China (ca. 976-922 BCE). The android, which dances, sings and imitates human behaviour, delights the king right up until the moment when the robot begins “to flirt with the concubines.”
For those who thought about such things, robot stories provoked some conversations about ethics. In a section of the Politics dedicated to a defense of slavery, Aristotle speculated that if life could become fully automated “then craftsmen would have no need of servants and masters would have no need of slaves.” The statement is somewhat ironic: machines have freed many people from hard labor but they also threaten the ability of many others to earn money and support themselves. Aristotle was further still from the our modern sci-fi trope, in which rebellious machines attempt to enslave or destroy the human race.
One of the most troubling aspects of ancient fantasies about automata is that the robots do not appear to play by any rules. Isaac Asimov’s first “Law of Robotics” stipulates that robots should be incapable of injuring a human being. Many ancient robots were benign or even helpful, but others were downright malicious. Pandora, the “first woman” was not a woman at all but actually something “made, not born” and endowed with the gifts. The ramifications of the actions of this artificial woman injured human beings on an unprecedented scale when she opened her “box” (fun fact: it was actually a jar. The box idea comes from a mistranslation). It’s not accidental, Mayor suggests, that she was presented to a man known for his boundless optimism. Perhaps stories like these, she hints, should stand alongside the cautionary words of those like Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates who warn that “AI could spell the end of the human race.”
Interestingly, ancient tech continues to influence modern invention, especially in the military arena. In 1948 a ramjet missile was named Talos, after the Cretan robot. Then, in 2013, Talos experienced something of a rebirth. The US Special Operations Command and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency started a project to create a special ops robotic exoskeleton (yes, like Iron Man). The purpose of the suit, Mayor writes, is to provide superhuman strength, heightened sensory awareness, and ballistic protection. They self-consciously named it the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS). The project has not been completed.