'Made, not born'

Author traces the ancient roots of science fiction in 'Gods and Robots'

Imagine facing a dreadful army of robot-like figures programmed to mindlessly destroy whatever is in their path, hardwired to attack and advance. Hope comes in the form of a clever hacker who figures out how to use the androids' coding to her advantage, disrupting their programming and causing them to turn on each other instead. Sound like a thrilling science fiction tale? It is indeed, albeit one that's been around for millennia.

That story comes from "The Argonautica," an epic poem based on the myth of Jason, Medea and their quest for the golden fleece. Concepts such as artificial intelligence and robotics tend to feel cutting-edge or even futuristic. But Palo Alto author Adrienne Mayor finds that many of these ideas are rooted in the ancient world.

"Everybody else is looking forward but I'm looking back," Mayor said in a recent interview.

In "Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology," Mayor, a folklorist and historian of science who currently works as a research scholar in Stanford University's classics department, explores how many high-tech ideas can be traced back thousands of years, with a particular focus on Ancient Greek mythology, literature and art.

Though Greek mythology may be more commonly thought of in terms of supernatural magic and fantastical beasts, Mayor argues that stories such as "The Argonautica" actually represent some of the earliest recorded science fiction, with an emphasis on characters and inventions "made, not born," meaning created through technology.

"These ancient 'science fictions' show how the power of imagination allowed people, from the time of Homer to Aristotle's day, to ponder how replicas of nature might be crafted," she states in the book's introduction. "Ideas about creating artificial life were thinkable long before technology made such enterprises possible."

The term "biotekne," the basis for our modern term biotechnology, she explained, can be translated as "life through craft." Brought to life, in other words, by artificial means.

Regular use of tools and technology has long been something that distinguishes humanity from much of the rest of the animal kingdom, with fire often considered one of the most essential and earliest bits of technology that helped humans dominate the earth. In "Gods and Robots," Mayor explores the story of the god Prometheus, who gives humans fire (and is punished for it), perhaps representing humanity's leap into advanced civilization. In some legends, Prometheus is actually the creator of humans, sculpting and fabricating them with tools; not willing them into existence supernaturally but rather building them, piece by piece.

Other notable characters covered include the aforementioned Medea, the Asian-born sorceress who uses scientific skills to become incredibly powerful. Without her, hero Jason would have been lost (and in fact meets a rather pathetic end after betraying her).

"Medea is like a hacker," Mayor said of the woman who also uses her skills with plants and chemicals to her advantage. "Her knowledge is biotechnical, not magic."

Medea is a fascinating figure, whom the Greeks both feared and admired: the antithesis of the idealized passive and domestic Greek woman.

"She's a powerful female from exotic eastern lands; she's also an ally you want on your side," she said, adding with a smile that in the legends, Medea eventually escapes and disappears. "She could pop up at any time."

There's Talos, the bronze automaton charged with guarding Crete, whom the "techno-witch" Medea and Jason hack and disable by opening a valve on his ankle. The metal giant represents the "earliest robot to walk the Earth," Mayor said. "Talos is the oldest technological product taken down by tech. It's an interesting lesson: No matter what you build, someone else is going to be able to surpass it or destroy it."

On the human side, there's Daedalus, the master craftsman best known as the architect of his son Icarus' ill-fated wings but who also invented a myriad of other things, including the Minotaur's labyrinth.

The character of Daedalus, Mayor said, may stand in as a conglomerate of pioneering inventors and craftspeople so admired by the Greeks. Interestingly, the oldest known image of Daedalus in the archaeological record appears on an Etruscan pot, meaning that quite early on his legend spread from Greece to Italy (and pictured on that pot alongside him? Ever-resourceful Medea, popping up yet again).

Another story envisions ships that can steer themselves to any location on earth: proto-GPS.

Then there's the infamous Pandora, who, the ancient sources are clear, was not a flesh-and-blood human but rather an automaton, built and sent by the gods to open her jar and let misery into the mortal world. Ancient visual depictions of Pandora included in the book show her with a vaguely creepy smile and a static, doll-like position, intensifying the "uncanny" feelings generated when encountering an eerily lifelike replica. Mayor ties Pandora to later depictions of nefarious "fembots" in literature and film.

"Gods and Robots" also delves into references to later (but still ancient) devices and inventions that could, potentially, have actually existed, including statues that seemed to sing, primitive batteries, artificial flying devices and, in one memorable chronicle, a giant mechanized, slime-oozing snail.

And it seems since time immemorial, humans have desired mastery over the natural world and their own mortality. Mayor delves into some ancient examples of humans attempting to secure eternal life and the consequences of those attempts.

As a historian of science, Mayor said her research looks for the "first inklings" of science in premodern societies.

"I'm always trying to push it back, looking at ancient accounts for the first germs of historic and scientific reality," she said. "I especially like to look for evidence in nature and the natural world. People were very keen observers and tried to rationally account for things, to speculate."

When asked who her target audience for "Gods and Robots" was, Mayor, who's also the author of "Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World," among other publications, laughed.

"Me! I try to work on books about things that I want to know more about," she said. Published by Princeton University Press, the book is academic in content but easily accessible to general readers, whether or not they have much background knowledge in mythology, ancient history or technology. Mayor said she is especially gratified by the positive response she's received from readers with expertise in current AI technology.

Greek mythology remains resonate and popular because it seems to contain profound truths about the world and human nature. Its insights into the benefits and dangers of scientific advancements, technological developments and "playing God," she said, are no different.

The stories have "surprising relevance" today, she said. Crafty god Haephastus' automated labor-saving devices are charming and fun in the divine realm, she noted, but quickly go awry once humans get their hands on them.

"Maybe the myths are suggesting that AI is interesting but that we really need to think about the consequences," she said.

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