Gods and Robots:
An Interview with Adrienne Mayor on Ancient Machines

April 21, 2019

Interview by Jeffrey Holmes


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Dr. Adrienne Mayor is a Stanford University folklorist and historian who works to uncover the natural science behind ancient myths and the “folk science” that finds itself as an alternative to the modern scientific method. Her first book, 2000’s The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times, is a pioneering work on geomythology, the science of understanding complex natural processes and extraordinary events. Since then, she has written several other books, a myriad of essays, and contributed regularly to Wonders and Marvels. Her most recent book, 2018’s Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology surveys the culture of ancient Greek myths and how those stories lent themselves to the historical development of technology. In Gods, Mayor finds that myths of AI and automatons cultivated a fascination so deep that the Greeks would eventually attempt to create such technology, inducting their fiction into reality. This book was the subject for a recent Stanford Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous (LASER) talk that was uploaded to YouTube in April 2019. I was fortunate enough to interview Mayor and ask questions about her work and research. With the following discussion, I hope to bring her vital findings to a broad audience.

1) Near the beginning of your LASER talk, you discuss the story of Talos as one of the first examples of science fiction. As a biotechne, literally a “life through craft,” Talos does not run on blood but on a fluid called ichor. Could you tell us more about ichor and how it relates the myth of Talos?

It's remarkable that we have details of the bronze robot Talos's inner workings and power source. The blacksmith god Hephaestus constructed Talos with a single internal artery or tube filled with ichor, the ethereal life-fluid of the gods, which pulsed from his head to his feet. This “vivisystem” was sealed by bolt at his ankle. In Greek mythology, golden ichor instead of red blood circulated in the veins of the immortal gods. According to Homer, gods and goddesses could lose lose a few drops of ichor without dying because their bodies quickly regenerated. In the Talos story, immortal ichor powered the robot, but the sorceress Medea cleverly reasoned that if she could cause all of the ichor to exsanguinate, Talos would be destroyed. She knew that the automaton's weak point was the bolt on his ankle, and when she and Jason remove this essential seal, the ichor flowed out like molten lead, and Talos's "life" ebbed away.

In 1914, the classical scholar A. B. Cook proposed an intriguing theory drawing on ancient metallurgy technology. Cook suggested that the distinctive physiology of Talos might have symbolized or alluded to lost-wax casting in the Bronze Age. Bronze statues were made with tubes of wax, which flowed out at the feet during casting at great heat.

Talos's physiology is biomimetic. In ancient medical texts, ichor was the word for the watery blood serum of mammals. Moreover, at least one poet described the vital vein in the bronze giant's circulation system with the technical term for blood vessel in Greek medical treatises. This imaginary integration of living and non-living components, melding biology with metallurgical "mechanics," makes Talos into a kind of ancient cyborg with bio-mechanical body parts.

2) You reference the character of HAL from 1968's 2001: A Space Odyssey in your talk as one that becomes the target of sympathy from the audience. Could you say more on the relationship we have with artificial life today, as real-world AIs such as Amazon’s Alexa also appear to take on human traits and elicit sympathy? It appears to me that a modern technology like Alexa is almost the contents of a Pandora’s Box, as you wrote in your 2018 essay, “An AI Wake-Up Call from Ancient Greece.”

Recent studies in human-robot interactions show that people tend to anthropomorphize robots and Artificial Intelligence, especially if the entities "act like" humans and have a name and a personal "story." We often endow self-moving objects that mimic human behavior with emotions and the ability to suffer, and we feel pangs of empathy for them when they are damaged or destroyed. But conversely, can AI be ever be expected to possess compassion or empathy for us, its makers and users? Could human feelings be replicated? Artificial empathy (AE) is the phrase used for developing AI systems−such as companion robots−that would be able to detect and respond appropriately to human emotions. The root of "empathy" is the ancient Greek word pathos, emotion. Soon, as you note, AI systems will become inscrutable to us, and potentially deadly Pandora's boxes. How can emotion and empathy be instilled in AI entities? Some AI technicians suggest that stories and storytelling might be uploaded into AI to teach human values, beliefs, and empathy.

3) Near the end of your talk, you mention examples of fictionalized artificial life coming from India and China. Could you provide us with an example?

The Greeks were not the only people to imagine automatons and machines in antiquity. Self-navigating ships appear in Egyptian texts, and android and animal automatons are described in ancient Chinese chronicles. Myths featuring flying chariots and synthetic swans, animated servants, giant robots, machines, and the like appear in ancient Indian epic poems, such as the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and other works. One ancient Sanskrit legend recounts that after Buddha's death, King Ajatasatru preserved his bodily remains in a hidden chamber underground, defended by bhuta vahana yantra, "spirit movement machines," in the form of robotic warriors. These automaton soldiers guarded Buddha's relics until the great emperor Asoka heard about the secret chamber. Asoka battled the robots and after he defeated and learned how to control them, it was said that they obeyed Asoka.

5) Much of your research outside of this talk pertains to study of the classics, archaeology, and history. Two of your other works, Poison King and Greek Fire, divulge the specifics of weaponry from the past. Would you say that any of these myths of automata are influential on the development of weaponry?

Notably, many of the earliest actual machines invented in classical antiquity were used in the theater or in warfare. Just as in myth, Zeus commissioned Hephaestus to make the killer robot Talos and other automatons deadly to mortals, historical tyrants, such as King Philip II of Macedon, commissioned brilliant engineers to construct innovative and powerful military weapons, such as the torsion catapult and mechanized siege machines.

6) Both in your talk and in your Aeon essay “Replicants and Robots,” there is an underlying thesis that is perhaps best summed up by the quote in this link: the impulse to “create artificial life is timeless" (https://www.scaruffi.com/leonardo/apr2019.html#mayor). Do you think there is an end goal with the human desire to create artificial life or that these experiments merely exist to further an understanding of artificial intelligence?

The ancient myths were like our science fiction tales, in which people' imaginations envisioned wonders and marvels that the god of invention Hephaestus or the brilliant craftsman Daedalus could achieve. The myths were thought experiments about how one might be able to fabricate self-moving devices, androids, and automated machines if only one possessed divine powers and ingenuity. Today's grandiose ambitions and futuristic goals to re-imagine humanity are close to becoming reality. We are on the brink of what advanced technology will make possible --and problematic. It seems impossible to resist opening Pandora's box of tantalizing "gifts," AI technologies that promise to improve life. Ethical and practical dilemmas surround implementing AI and robotics advances without foresight, especially as nontransparent "black box" technologies will keep users as well as makers in the dark. Will we be able to look ahead and anticipate dangerous developments as we rush headlong into what some call the Age of Robo-Humanity? More than 2,000 years ago, the Athenian playwright Sophocles warned that humankind's ingenuity could lead to both good and evil ends.

Dr. Adrienne Mayor is a Stanford professor of classics, history, and philosophy of science. She can be reached via email at mayor@stanford.edu. Jeffrey Holmes is a journalist, philosopher, and musician from PA, USA. They can be reached via email at jeffreyholmes0104@gmail.com and on Twitter @lilslugger2k18.