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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Rot the eyes right out of your head with this collection of 60 free Film Noir classics

I've been hooked on hard-boiled crime novels and Film Noir since I picked up my first copy (there have been many) of Dashiel Hammett's Red Harvest back in the mid-1990s. It's bleak, entertaining stuff that I find to be a hell of a lot more honest in its portrayal of human desperation, motivation, rage and lust than most of the drivel that's spoon-fed to us in films, television and a whole lot of books these days.

My personal tastes lean towards stories where the bad guy, or at least, a pretty lousy guy, wins. Richard Stark's (a pen name of the late, great Donald E. Westlake) Parker series, anything written by Lawrence Block or Raymond Chandler, and movies like The Big Sleep, The Long Goodbye or more recently, The Drop scratch my need for fatalistic media. Despite their being a glut of crime and detective films out there, set in the city, country or even the future (I'm looking at you, Looper), finding new books to read or movies to veg out to can be a daunting task. Fortunately, the good people at Open Culture have made the latter a whole lot easier.

Open Culture's curated a fine collection of 60 Film Noir gems that are free to watch online, and in some cases, free to download. I won't lie to you, there's a number of stinkers in the movies that they've included on their list, but even a bad film can be worth watching. If nothing else, it'll make you appreciate a good movie that much more. Read the rest

Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey

Centuries of stodgy, numbing translations of The Odyssey have left it a bad classroom memory for generations, a classic enjoyed mostly through modernized retellings of one kind or another. But Emily Wilson isn't just the first woman classicist to publish a translation: hers is both radically contemporary and sharply attuned to the spirit and subtleties of the text.

Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy, and where he went, and who he met, the pain he suffered in the storms at sea, and how he worked to save his life and bring his men back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools, they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus, tell the old story for our modern times. Find the beginning. .

Even better than T. E. Lawrence's! But compare instead to the contemporary favorite, Robert Fagles' 1990s translation:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turnsdriven time and again off course, once he had plunderedthe hallowed heights of Troy.Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove— the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all, the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sunand the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.Launch

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Kickstarting gorgeous, illustrated slipcased classics with art from Pope, Shimuzu and Sienkiewicz

Zachary Zmith writes, "A Kickstarter is funding beautifully-designed and illustrated editions of classic stories, with illustrations from Paul Pope, Yuko Shimizu and Bill Sienkiewicz. They have already met their initial goal to fund a version of Algernon Blackwood's 'The Willows' with art by Paul Pope. If they reach $100k, Bill Sienkiewicz will illustrate H.G. Wells' vivisection classic." Read the rest

Enjoy classic illustrations of the micro world, for free

This illustration of a flea comes from Robert Hooke's Micrographia — an amazing collection of illustrations drawn from microscope images, first published in 1665. Think of it like a proto-viral blog post that somehow fuzed Nature and Buzzfeed. Something with a headline like "15 UNBELIEVABLE IMAGES OF EVERYDAY THINGS!"

Micrographia — the whole thing — is now available in ebook form. For free. In several different formats. To give you a sense of why this is worth checking out, here's Carl Zimmer on the book's social/scientific impact back in the 17th century:

In January 1665, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary that he stayed up till two in the morning reading a best-selling page-turner, a work that he called "the most ingenious book I read in my life." It was not a rousing history of English battles or a proto-bodice ripper. It was filled with images: of fleas, of bark, of the edges of razors.

The book was called Micrographia. It provided the reading public with its first look at the world beyond the naked eye. Its author, Robert Hooke, belonged to a brilliant circle of natural philosophers who--among many other things--were the first in England to make serious use of microscopes as scientific instruments. They were great believers in looking at the natural world for themselves rather than relying on what ancient Greek scholars had claimed. Looking under a microscope at the thousands of facets on an insect's compound eye, they saw things at the nanoscale that Aristotle could not have dreamed of.

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