The Ancient History of Intelligent Machines

From The MIT Press Reader:

Robots have histories that extend far back into the past. Artificial servants, autonomous killing machines, surveillance systems, and sex robots all find expression from the human imagination in works and contexts beyond Ovid (43 BCE to 17 CE) and the story of Pygmalion in cultures across Eurasia and North Africa. This long history of our human-machine relationships also reminds us that our aspirations, fears, and fantasies about emergent technologies are not new, even as the circumstances in which they appear differ widely. Situating these objects, and the desires that create them, within deeper and broader contexts of time and space reveals continuities and divergences that, in turn, provide opportunities to critique and question contemporary ideas and desires about robots and artificial intelligence (AI).

As early as 3,000 years ago we encounter interest in intelligent machines and AI that perform different servile functions. In the works of Homer (c. eighth century BCE) we find Hephaestus, the Greek god of smithing and craft, using automatic bellows to execute simple, repetitive labor. Golden handmaidens, endowed with characteristics of movement, perception, judgment, and speech, assist him in his work. In his “Odyssey,” Homer recounts how the ships of the Phaeacians perfectly obey their human captains, detecting and avoiding obstacles or threats, and moving “at the speed of thought.” Several centuries later, around 400 BCE, we meet Talos, the giant bronze sentry, created by Hephaestus, that patrolled the shores of Crete. These examples from the ancient world all have in common their subservient role; they exist to serve the desires of other, more powerful beings — either gods or humans — and even if they have sentience, they lack autonomy. Thousands of years before Karel Čapek introduced the term “robot” to refer to artificial slaves, we find them in Homer.

Given the prevalence of intelligent artificial objects in Hellenic culture, it is no surprise that engineers in the later Hellenistic period turned to designing and building these machines. Mathematicians and engineers based in Alexandria began writing treatises on automaton-making and engineering around the third century BCE. These included instructions for how to make elaborate dioramas with moving figures, musical automata, mechanical servants, and automata powered by steam, water, air, and mechanics. Some of these devices were intended to illustrate the physical principles animating them, and others were scaled up and incorporated into public spectacle. Regardless of size, they were intended to evoke a network of emotional responses, including wonder and awe.

Robots were so prevalent in the imaginative and material culture of the Greek-speaking world that they were seen as emblematic of Hellenistic culture by others. Buddhist legends focused on north-eastern India from the fourth and third centuries BCE recount the army of automata that guarded Buddha’s relics, built with knowledge smuggled from the Graecophone world. In one version, which features both killer robot-assassins and robot-guardians, a young man travels in disguise to the land of the Yavanas (Greek speakers) to learn the art of automaton-making, a secret closely guarded by the yantakaras (automaton makers) there, knowledge that he then steals to make the artificial guards. We find stories of automatic warriors guarding the Buddha’s relics in Chinese, Sanskrit, Hindu, and Tibetan texts. Additionally, mechanical automata also appear elsewhere in the Chinese historical record: for example, at the court of Tang ruler Empress Wu Zhou (c.624–705 CE).

The trope of the guardian/killer automaton also appears linked to stories about the ancient world from medieval Latin Christendom — where, unlike much of the rest of Eurasia, people lacked the knowledge of how to make complex machines. In an Old French version of the Aeneid (c.1160 CE), a golden robot-archer stands sentry over the tomb of a fallen warrior queen, and in the history of Alexander the Great (c.1180 CE), the ruler encounters golden killer robots guarding a bridge in India and armed copper robots protecting the tomb of “the emir of Babylon.” Hellenistic handbooks on automaton-making, translated into Arabic in the ninth century CE at the Abbasid court in Baghdad, also influenced the design and construction of automata in Islamdom that were usually placed in palaces and mosques, and included musician-automata, programmable clocks and fountains, and mechanical animals. These makers in Islamdom innovated on the designs of the Alexandrian School and created increasingly complex machines; although some of the objects hearken back to much older forms. In the work of courtier and engineer al-Jazari (1136–1206 CE), for example, we find designs for wheeled cupbearers and servants, an echo of the wheeled servants attending to the gods on Mount Olympus.

Al-Jazari’s courtly mechanical servants and the killer sentries in imaginative literature share a link to surveillance, foreshadowing another purpose to which AI and robots have often been turned. Sentries and guards keep watch and discern friend from foe, while courtly servants operate in ritualized, hierarchical environments where people are under constant scrutiny. Objects like those of al-Jazari’s designs were found throughout Islamdom and the eastern Roman Empire, but were unable to be built or reproduced in the Latin Christian West until the late 13th century. However, they appear earlier in imaginative texts as luxury objects, in elite settings, as fantasies of perfect surveillance and perfectly obedient servants.

. . . .

Robots and AI have long been used both to foreground and to trouble the conceptual boundary between born and made, and the related boundary between life and not-life. Yet the contexts in which these stories appear supply different meanings to the same story. In the early Taoist text “The Book of Liezi”(compiled circa fourth century), the skill of the artificer is appreciated by the king and his court, but in other stories about learned men and their automaton-children, such as those attached to Albertus Magnus in the 14th and 15th centuries, and to René Descartes in the 18th and 19th centuries, the robot is destroyed by ignorant people out of fear. In E. T. A. Hoffman’s version of this tale, “The Sandman” (1816), the inability to distinguish made from born drives the protagonist, Nathanael, insane and, eventually, to his death.

Link to the rest at The MIT Press Reader

The MIT Press article is excerpted from The Lovemakers, edited by Aifric Campbell

Read More