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.

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Particle accelerator reveals ancient medical manuscript replaced with religious text

The SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California recently found a 6th century manuscript by Greek physician Galen, which had been scraped from its pages 500 years later and replaced with religious text. Who needs science when there are religious texts that need copying? Read the rest

My RSS feeds from a decade ago, a snapshot of gadget blogging when that was a thing

I chanced upon an ancient backup of my RSS feed subscriptions, a cold hard stone of data from my time at Wired in the mid-2000s. The last-modified date on the file is December 2007. I wiped my feeds upon coming to Boing Boing thenabouts: a fresh start and a new perspective.

What I found, over 212 mostly-defunct sites, is a time capsule of web culture from a bygone age—albeit one tailored to the professional purpose of cranking out blog posts about consumer electronics a decade ago. It's not a picture of a wonderful time before all the horrors of Facebook and Twitter set in. This place is not a place of honor. No highly-esteemed deed is commemorated here. But perhaps some of you might like a quick tour, all the same. Read the rest

Controversy over DNA sequencing of 90 Egyptian mummies

One of the most hotly-contested fields of genetics revolves around the genetic lineage of ancient Egyptians. A new study of 90 Pre-Ptolemaic, Ptolemaic, and Roman mummies raises as many questions as it answers. Read the rest

We are all star stuff

How scientists study the fossils of ancient bacteria to find clues to a 2.6-million-year-old supernovae. Jennifer Ouellette explains how the the bacteria incorporated elements from an exploding star into their bodies, and how those elements can still be found today. Read the rest

Why did our species survive?

Today, we're the only living member of the genus Homo and the only living member of the subtribe Hominina. Along with chimpanzees and bonobos, we're all that remains of the tribe Hominini.

But the fossil record tells us that wasn't always the case. There were, for instance, at least eight other species of Homo running around this planet at one time. So what happened to them? What makes us so special that we're still here? And isn't it just a little weird and meta to be fretting about this? I mean, do lions and tigers spend a lot of time pondering the fate of the Smilodon?

Today, starting at 12:00 Eastern, you can watch as a panel of scientists tackle these and other questions. "Why We Prevailed" is part of the World Science Festival and features anthropologist Alison Brooks, genome biologist Ed Green, paleoanthropologist Chris Stringer (one of the key researchers behind the "Out of Africa" theory), and renowned evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson.

You can also join in a live conversation about the panel, which I'll be hosting. Just post to Twitter with hashtag #prevail, or join us at UStream. Read the rest