We may not be driving flying cars, but we can use free AI (Artificial Intelligence) systems like DALL-E and ChatGPT in our creative endeavors. A robot could have created the next online ad you might see. But it doesn’t stop there. A few years ago, an AI-generated painting was auctioned for 432.000$. At the same time, researchers are already proposing conceptual frameworks for hiring robots in customer service jobs. Have you recently called a hotline only to be alarmed by the mundane tone in the responder’s voice? Perhaps a robot might have answered your call. If the idea disturbs you, you can blame it on Greek mythology. Let’s dive into the myths that shaped the way we view robots.
Greek Mythology and Robots
Ancient Greeks did not have to worry about humanoid robots taking their jobs —although we can imagine the Athenians reserving extra free time for wine talks. Despite that, their myths often touched on the subject of humans becoming creators. Creators of intelligent yet soulless beings, to be precise. They did not use the word “robot” — the term was only coined in 1921 by the writer Karel Čapek. They did, however, describe the use of artificial people as servants for humanity.
Hephaestus, the god of forge, fire, and craft, had reportedly crafted “handmaidens wrought of gold in the semblance of living maids”, as Homer described them in the Iliad (18.415-19). Just like the robots in the play R.U.R. by Karel Čapek (1921), these maidens were there to assist and serve. The main difference between the golden maidens of Hephaestus and the robots at R.U.R. is that the former were created by a god, while the latter were created by humans to prove the “absurdity of God”. It is not hard to imagine that the human creation of robots, as we know it from Čapek’s play, did not have a happy ending. The robots revolted with the aim of annihilating humans — a concept we often see in popular culture.
R.U.R is often considered the first story that invoked the fear of robots. However, Čapek was not the first one to warn us about the threat of mechanization. The concept of humans challenging the gods with their advancements, and the ways they got punished for this, were already part of ancient Greek thought. The myths of Pandora, Pygmalion, and Talos are great examples. These three myths can perhaps give us a glimpse of how ancient Greeks viewed the potential use of robots in our daily lives.
The Myth of Pandora
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In Pandora’s myth, as we know it from Hesiod, the gods of Mount Olympus take revenge on humans and their benefactor, Prometheus. The punishment was offered in the form of a gift. They offered an artificial woman to Epimetheus, Prometheus’ brother, to be his wife. She was an advanced humanoid that was meant to help humanity prosper. However, as we all know, Pandora ended up committing an error that brought chaos into the universe: she opened the box (or the jar to be precise!) of all evils. Could ancient Greeks perhaps have tried to warn us of the dangers of becoming creators of AI?
There are indeed countless ways to interpret the myth of Pandora. She is an archetypical figure often analyzed in gender and religious studies. However, Pandora’s story is one of the many ancient Greek myths that may perhaps reveal our fear for our own powers. From Hesiod we know the gods created Pandora after Prometheus had offered humans the great gift of fire. The latter gave them the opportunity to become creators themselves, bringing anything they could imagine into existence. In a certain way, they accidentally acquired divine powers; a hybris that resulted in their own nemesis.
The Myth of Talos
Perhaps the most well-known ancient Greek automaton — i.e., a self-operating machine — is no other than Talos. The ancient Greek robot is mentioned in various sources, from the Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes to Hesiod’s Works and Days. Just like Pandora, Talos was created by the god Hephaestus to protect the island of Crete (and Europa who resided there) from invaders. The automaton would patrol the island’s coast, throwing huge boulders at any ship that came too close. He was also said to be able to run at great speed. That enabled him to circle the island three times a day to ensure its security.
According to one version of the myth, Talos was defeated by the Argonauts. The latter sailed to Crete with the help of Medea, a sorceress and the wife of the ship’s leader, Jason. Medea convinced Talos to remove the nail that held his ankle in place, causing him to bleed out and die. The automaton did not have human blood but rather a different substance known as ichor. In another version of the myth, Talos was killed by a poisoned arrow shot by a Cretan prince named Phaleros.
Just like any other mythical figure, the one of Talos can be analyzed in various ways. On one hand, the automaton stands as a symbol of power and protection. On the other hand, his descriptions give us a glimpse of how ancient Greeks viewed robots: as protectors of humans but also a threat to humanity; super-humans but also mortals. With all these in mind, it is safe to assume that Talos, the bronze giant, has been the inspiration behind most representations of robots in pop culture.
The Myth of Pygmalion
It is not uncommon to hear stories of humans marrying inanimate objects. In 2013, a woman from Australia posed in her wedding dress next to her much older groom: a 600-year-old bridge from France. It is therefore not hard to imagine the implications of having intelligent objects living among us. In 2020, a phenomenological study on the impact of robots on people’s perception of love and romantic relationships was published in Paladyn, Journal of Behavioral Robotics. However, the concern of the influence artificial intelligence and robots can have on our lives is much older than that.
Pygmalion the sculptor is an ancient Greek mythical figure, mostly known from poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The sculptor is known for his obsession with one of his works of art. He had carved “the perfect woman” out of ivory and became obsessed with her. Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, finally granted him his biggest desire: the ivory statue came to life and she was now a woman.
According to the more recent work Pygmalion by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1770), the statue’s name was Galatea. The ending of this particular myth is surprisingly happy: Pygmalion marries his creation with the blessings of Aphrodite and the two produce an offspring. However, many questions arise from this story. Does Galatea have free will? Can she love Pygmalion back? Can a relationship thrive without reciprocation? And most importantly: what happens when humans change from imitators of creation to creators themselves?
The “Uncanny Valley” Effect
Despite Pygmalion’s attraction to Galatea, people tend to fear anything that looks like a human but it is not exactly human. Recent videos of an ultra-realistic robot named Sophia gained immense popularity. Sophia is the world’s first robot citizen and the first robot Innovation Ambassador for the United Nations Development Programme. Despite people’s fascination with Sophia’s appearance and intelligence, most seem to have experienced a sense of uneasiness near her. There is a circulating rumor that wants owners of pet snakes to be under constant stress. It is said that, despite their fascination with reptiles, deep inside they are paralyzed with fear whenever they are near them. In a similar way, humans are bound to be fascinated yet uneased by AI robots.
Contrary to the snake rumor, the phenomenon of humans experiencing a sense of unease or revulsion when interacting with robots is actually documented. The “uncanny valley” effect, as it is known, refers to the unnerving feeling given by artificial beings that closely resemble humans but are not human-like enough. The term was first coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970.
The uncanny valley effect can be represented as a graph, with the x-axis representing the degree of human-like appearance, and the y-axis representing the degree of eeriness or discomfort experienced by the observer. The theory suggests that as an artificial being becomes more human-like, people’s emotional response to it becomes more positive, until it reaches a point where it is almost, but not quite, human-like. At this point, the emotional response becomes negative, creating a dip in the graph, which is known as the “uncanny valley”. However, do all cultures perceive robots the same way? Could, for example, westerners experience the same level of uneasiness as southeast Asians?
Cosmotechnics and Greek Mythology’s Impact on the West
According to the philosopher and researcher Yuk Hui, the West may have a different approach to technological advancements and, hence, being more hesitant towards specific developments. In The Question Concerning Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics (2016), Yuk Hui compares China’s rapid modernization and long history of technological development to the one of the West.
Cosmotechnics refers to the intersection of technology, science, and the cosmos in order to understand and address global challenges. It also includes the study of the impact of technology on the cosmos and the potential for new technologies to help us better understand and address the challenges facing humanity on a global scale.
The essay explores the differences in the way technology is viewed and approached in China compared to the West. The author argues that in the West, technology is primarily seen as a tool for economic development and progress. In China, there is a greater emphasis on the spiritual and philosophical aspects of technology. Hui suggests that this difference is rooted in the distinct cultural and historical perspectives of the two regions. For example, the Chinese approach to technology is more in line with traditional Eastern philosophy, which emphasizes harmony and balance between humanity and nature.
On the other hand, Hui argues that the Western concept of technology derived from the Greek idea of “techne”, which emphasizes the mastery of nature through the application of reason and technique. Humans are often distinguished from nature and vice versa. Moreover, the western culture has been greatly influenced by the ideas and beliefs of ancient Greeks. Myths such as the one of Pandora help us understand why the West may be more hesitant — if not fearful — at the face of artificial intelligence. It is therefore safe to admit the following: ancient Greeks warned us about robots and their myths are the reason we fear them.