The fascinating untold story of how the ancients imagined robots and other forms of artificial life—and even invented real automated machines
The first robot to walk the earth was a bronze giant called Talos. This wondrous machine was created not by MIT Robotics Lab, but by Hephaestus, the Greek god of invention. More than 2,500 years ago, long before medieval automata, and centuries before technology made self-moving devices possible, Greek mythology was exploring ideas about creating artificial life—and grappling with still-unresolved ethical concerns about biotechne, “life through craft.” In this compelling, richly illustrated book, Adrienne Mayor tells the fascinating story of how ancient Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese myths envisioned artificial life, automata, self-moving devices, and human enhancements—and how these visions relate to and reflect the ancient invention of real animated machines.
As early as Homer, Greeks were imagining robotic servants, animated statues, and even ancient versions of Artificial Intelligence, while in Indian legend, Buddha’s precious relics were defended by robot warriors copied from Greco-Roman designs for real automata. Mythic automata appear in tales about Jason and the Argonauts, Medea, Daedalus, Prometheus, and Pandora, and many of these machines are described as being built with the same materials and methods that human artisans used to make tools and statues. And, indeed, many sophisticated animated devices were actually built in antiquity, reaching a climax with the creation of a host of automata in the ancient city of learning, Alexandria, the original Silicon Valley.
A groundbreaking account of the earliest expressions of the timeless impulse to create artificial life, Gods and Robots reveals how some of today’s most advanced innovations in robotics and AI were foreshadowed in ancient myth—and how science has always been driven by imagination. This is mythology for the age of AI.
The Greeks thought of everything, including sci-fi tropes such as androids and artificial intelligence, according to this lively study of mythology and technology. Stanford classicist Mayor (The Amazons) surveys myths from ancient Greece (with excursions to India and China) about bio-techne, life crafted by artifice. She finds a trove of them, including those of the bronze warrior-robot Talos, who patrolled Crete, hurling boulders at ships and roasting soldiers alive; statues by the legendary engineer Daedalus, so lifelike that they had to be tethered to stay put; and marvels by the blacksmith god Hephaestus, including automated rolling tripods that served Olympian feasts and talking robot servants to help at his forge. Taking a more organic approach, the witch Medea, after defeating Talos with sweet talk and trickery, invented herbal drugs to reverse aging. Mayor also looks at real-life automata in ancient Alexandria mechanical beasts and people that moved, vocalized, and dispensed milk to bemused onlookers. Drawing somewhat obvious parallels with modern gadgetry self-piloting ships in The Odyssey remind her of GPS systems and latter-day sci-fi, from Frankenstein to Robocop, Mayor ponders questions of what life is, how robots think, and whether people can love a sculpture. The answers aren't especially deep, but Mayor's exploration of the endless inventiveness of the Greek imagination makes for an engrossing read. Photos.