Ancient civilizations' fascination with AI, robots, and synthetic life

Stanford folklorist and science historian Adrienne Mayor has a fascinating-sounding new book out, titled "Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology." It's a survey of how ancient Greeks, Romans, Indian, and Chinese myths imagined and grappled with visions of synthetic life, artificial intelligence, and autonomous robots. From Mayor's interview at Princeton University Press:

Who first imagined the concept of robots?

Most historians of science trace the first automatons to the Middle Ages. But I wondered, was it possible that ideas about creating artificial life were thinkable long before technology made such enterprises possible? Remarkably, as early as the time of Homer, ancient Greek myths were envisioning how to imitate, augment, and surpass nature, by means of biotechne, “life through craft”—what we now call biotechnology. Beings described as fabricated, “made, not born,” appeared in myths about Jason and the Argonauts, the sorceress Medea, the bronze robot Talos, the ingenious craftsman Daedalus, the fire-bringer Prometheus, and Pandora, the female android created by Hephaestus, god of invention. These vivid stories were ancient thought experiments set in an alternate world where technology was marvelously advanced.

Modern sci-fi movies pop up in several chapters. How do they relate to ancient myths?

Some 2,500 years before movies were invented, ancient Greek vase painters illustrated popular stories of the bronze robot warrior Talos, the techno-wizard Medea, and the fembot Pandora dispatched to earth on an evil mission, in ways that seem very “cinematic...” Movies and myths about imagined technology are cultural dreams. Like contemporary science fiction tales, the myths show how the power of imagination allows humans to ponder how artificial life might be created—if only one possessed sublime technology and genius. We can see “futuristic” thinking in the myths’ automated machines and tools, self-driving chariots, self-navigating ships, metal robots powered by special fluids, and AI servants made of gold and silver. Another similarity to sci-fi tales is that the myths warn about disturbing consequences of creating artificial life.

Have you come across any unexpected legends about automatons?

A little-known legend translated from Sanskrit claims that after his death, Buddha’s bodily remains were guarded by robotic warriors in a secret underground chamber in India.

"Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology" (Amazon)