Gods and Robots: A book review by Bob Morris

Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology
Adrienne Mayor
Princeton University Press (November 2018)

“The great river network of mythic narratives with all its tributaries”

That is how George Zarkadakis characterizes the narrative arc in Adrienne Mayor book, following “a meandering, backtracking, twisting thread of stories and images to try to understand how ancient cultures thought about artificial intelligence.” According to Mayor, “This book surveys the wide range of forms of artificial life in mythology which includes tales of quest for longevity and immortality, superhuman powers borrowed from gods and animals, as well as automata and lifelike replications endowed with motion and mind.”

I enjoyed reading Gods and Robots so much the first time that I immediately re-read it and enjoyed it even more the second time. Mayor has selected a subject of special interest to me: man’s efforts since earliest recorded history to have non-humans and then inventions and finally machines to do his work for him. As she explains, “This book surveys the wide range of forms of artificial life in mythology which includes tales of quest for longevity and immortality, superhuman powers borrowed from gods and animals, as well as automata and lifelike replications endowed with motion and mind.”

Mayor observes, “I believe the stories collected here are ‘good to think with,’ tracing the nascent concepts and imaginings about artificial life [made, not born] that preceded technological actualities.” Citing Zarkadakis’s metaphor, she notes that “the story lines are layered and braided as we travel along…crisscrossing and circling back to familiar characters and stories, and accumulating new insights as we go.”

In this context, I am again reminded of a passage in T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” in Chapter 2 (“Little Gidding”):

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all of our exploring
Will be to arrive at where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

Our journey into the ancient dreams of technology does indeed provide “new insights as we go.” One result of a careful reading and (as I can attest) many more after a second reading, as Adrienne Mayor suggests, “The Rise of a Robot-Artificial ‘culture’ no longer seems far-fetched. AI’s human inventors and mentors are already building the Robot-AI’s culture’s logos (logic), ethos (moral values), and pathos (emotions). As humans are enhanced by technology and become more like machines, robots are being infused with something like humanity. We are approaching what some call the new dawn of Robo-Humanity. When that day comes, what myths and stories will we tell ourselves? The answers will shape how and what our AI creations will learn too.”

I intend to re-read Gods and Robots again later in the year. Meanwhile, I will continue to think about the paradox that, in my opinion, is at the heart of Adrienne Mayor’s lively and eloquent narrative: since Hephaestus created Talos, the first animated statue, to protect Crete, humans have both yearned for and feared artificial life. Perhaps the day will come when robots determine which myths and stories they will share with humans.

 

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