The word “robot” was not coined until 1920, when it was used by Czech playwright Karel Čapek in the play RURor Rossumovi Universal Roboti (Rossum’s Universal Robots in English). Robots—or things like them—have existed in myth (and to some extent in fact) for thousands of years.
Automata in mythology
Isma’il Ibn al-Razzaz al-Jazari, an engineer born in the 12th century in present-day Turkey, designed and built many complex machines, including fountains and a water-powered alarm clock—and even wrote a book about the science of building them: The Book of Knowledge of the Ingenious Mechanical Devicewith. But it was probably his vending machines leading some to call him the “Father of Robotics”. These include a mechanical waitress who pours tea and a quartet of robots that play several different tunes and can be “programmed” to play different rhythms.
But among the countless stories we know from myth and folklore, we can find the clearest hints for our modern robots and AI programs. For example, in Jewish folklore, A big one is a clay man given magical life when words are placed in the Golem’s mouth. Just like in large language models AI programs which today amaze us and even succeed to convince some people that they are sane language is the animator—the ingredient that turns the clay statue into a being.
But robots in myth go back even further. In her 2018 book Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology, Adrienne Major describes how ancient cultures explored the idea of artificial life. The ancient Greeks were skilled in metalworking and mechanics and created many automata, including a puppet theater that could perform an entire play. These devices seem to have inspired generations of storytellers.
Hephaestus, the Greek god of metalworking and technology, produces wonderful weapons for the gods, but also constructs various creatures that Major describes as “made, not born.” IN Iliad, Homer tells of how Hephaestus made handmaidens out of gold to help him in his forge. Earlier stories tell of another creation of Hephaestus, Talos, a giant mechanical man made of bronze who was, as Major writes, “the first ‘robot’ to walk the earth.” Talos tirelessly patrolled the coast of Crete to protect the island from invasion.
Talos’ role was to protect humans. But another of Hephaestus’s artificial life forms was designed for the exact opposite purpose. After the Titan Prometheus gave mortals the gift of fire, Zeus was enraged. To avenge the mortals for accepting this gift, he ordered Hephaestus to make a beautiful woman, Pandora, out of clay, an enchanting creation that the Mayor calls a “fem-bot”. Pandora was sent to earth, along with a jar (in some translations it becomes a box), to be the wife of Epimetheus, brother of Prometheus. Although Prometheus had warned Epimetheus not to accept gifts from Zeus, Epimetheus took Pandora as his wife but forbade her to open the jar.
However, Wiley Zeus had already instructed her (or you could say, programmed her) to open the jar. When he finally did, all the evils that beset mankind—sickness, old age, madness, hunger—and every kind of suffering and trouble flew away.
What can these myths teach us?
Although gods and magic were often involved in creations like Talos and Pandora, Major argues that these ancient robots were not simply summoned by the will of a god. “These artificial beings were thought of as manufactured technological products, designed and constructed from scratch using the same materials and methods that human artisans used to make tools, artwork, buildings, and statues.” These stories were, she wrote. , sort of like “ancient thought experiments, what-if scenarios.
Today our robots are real. But we still make up a lot of what-ifs—and these ancient myths can help us do that. Major compared Stephen Hawking and others who warned us about the risks of artificial intelligence to Prometheus who warned about the dangers of accepting gifts from the gods. But this warning has been there all along; we just have to read the old myths to find it.