Walking into my house, I look at my apple laptop, 32-inch TV, and Samsung cell phone. Look at all these high-tech products! Think about how quickly technology innovation has happened in the modern society! Today, we even have intelligent agents, which refer to any device that perceives its environment and takes actions that maximize its chance of success at some goal. Modern AI include Siri, self-driving cars and robots. However, the idea of artificial intelligence was not born in the modern era. In fact, its origins could be traced back to Greek mythology.
(Image Source: Riordan Wiki)
Symbolized with a hammer, Hephaestus is the Greek god of blacksmiths, sculptors, metallurgy, fire and volcanoes. He is the blacksmith of the Olympus and makes weapons for all gods. He has invented countless interesting “machines,” which made his legendary stories all the more intriguing.
Hephaestus was the son of Hera and Zeus. He was born weak and crippled, displeasing Zeus and Hera, so much so, that he was thrown down the Mountain of Olympus. He was saved by people of Lemnos and grew up to become a blacksmith. As revenge, Hephaestus made a magical throne which trapped whoever sat on it. The throne trapped Hera successfully and helped Hephaestus return to Olympus.
The idea of a machine throne has characteristics of artificial intelligence: to be helpful for people to achieve a certain goal, be able to operate automatically and be programmed in advance to react in different ways depending on the situation.
Today, expectations from the ancient Greeks have been turned into reality. Handwriting recognition serves as an example. It turns handwriting into text in a computer or a tablet by recognizing the shapes of the letters. Whenever it “sees” a letter written by hand, it turns it into the same letter on the computer. It also operates automatically without continuous instructions given by human beings.
(Image Source: Mozilla Wiki)
Talos, the first robot in the world, is another famous invention of Hephaestus. He was made by Hephaestus and given a task of watching the island of Crete. As a guard, he walked around the island three times a day. If a stranger came, he would turn into red-hot fire and embrace the stranger when he or she landed. His body structure was well designed but different from the real human beings. Greek mythographer describes Talos in the following way:
“He had one blood vessel that extended from his neck down to his ankles, the lower end of which was held in place by a bronze stud.”
He ended up dying at the hand of Medeia. Some argued that Medeia drove Talos mad with drugs while others said that Medeia promised to make Talos immortal by taking away his stud, making him keep bleeding to death.
The story of Talos shows that ancient Greeks expected artificial intelligence to be similar to human beings. They should be in the shape of human beings and have similar body structures. However, it should be capable of accomplishing things which human beings are not capable of doing. For example, Talos was able to turn into fire and drive enemies away while human beings cannot.
Interestingly, people in the modern era share a similar mindset with the ancient people, ATLAS, a bipedal humanoid robot primarily developed by the American robotics company Boston Dynamics were put into experiment in 2015. However, as they were not made of flesh, they were stronger and could easily fit into dangerous places like nuclear reactors to accomplish rescue missions.
However, the story of Talos also reflects people’s worries of artificial intelligence. Talos died because of its desire to achieve immortality, demonstrating people’s resistance to the idea of an omnipotent artificial intelligence getting out of control.
This worry resonates with the themes of robots taking over the Earth in the movie industry. In season 4 in Agents of SHIELD, a robot named AIDA was used to follow orders given by her designer. Her principle of operation was to protect her designer. However, she found the flaws in her program and eventually succeeded in killing her master and trapping everyone in an artificial world. Even after all these years, people are still afraid of artificial intelligence.
(Image Source: Qulishi)
Chinese mythology also sheds light on AI. Yueying Huang, the wife of the famous chancellor in Chinese history called Zhuge Liang, was good at making “artificially intelligent machines.” It was said that Zhuge Liang was so impressed by her cleverness that he decided to marry her. When he first went to Huang’s house, he was greeted by two big dogs. The dogs rushed towards him aggressively and two servants rushed out, hitting the forehead of the dogs and stopping them. Zhuge Liang went closer and found out that the dogs were actually machines made of wood. He laughed to show his appreciation of the wisdom of Huang.
The two machine dogs present another form of artificial intelligence in ancient folklore. They suggest that human beings should have the ability to start or end the operation of AI. When the two machine dogs receive the stop sign, they would stop immediately. Artificial intelligence today is still under complete control of human beings. One can turn AI on and off easily without any resistance. For example, to turn off Siri, one only needs to say “goodbye.”
It is interesting to see that ideas of artificial intelligence originated from ancient mythologies and that what was the mere imagination of during ancient times has become reality today. Human beings have always been using their imagination to envision a better life. It is this desire that drives human beings to keep making progress and moving forward. So keep dreaming today. Who knows whether it could come true in the future?