Nov 30, 2022
When we talk about AI, we usually fixate on the future. What’s coming next? Where is the technology going? How will artificial intelligences reshape our lives and worlds? But it's also worth looking to the past. When did the prospect of manufactured minds first enter the human imagination? When did we start building robots, and what did those early robots do? What are the deeper origins, in other words, not only of artificial intelligences themselves, but of our ideas about those intelligences?
For this episode, we have two guests who've spent a lot of time delving into the deeper history of AI. One is Adrienne Mayor; Adrienne is a Research Scholar in the Department of Classics at Stanford University and the author of the 2018 book, Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology. Our second guest is Elly Truitt; Elly is Associate Professor in the History & Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the 2015 book, Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art.
In this conversation, we draw on Adrienne's expertise in the classical era and Elly's expertise in the medieval period to dig into the surprisingly long and rich history of AI. We discuss some of the very first imaginings of artificial beings in Greek mythology, including Talos, the giant robot guarding the island of Crete. We talk about some of the very first historical examples of automata, or self-moving devices; these included statues that spoke, mechanical birds that flew, thrones that rose, and clocks that showed the movements of the heavens. We also discuss the long-standing and tangled relationships between AI and power, exoticism, slavery, prediction, and justice. And, finally, we consider some of the most prominent ideas we have about AI today and whether they had precedents in earlier times.
This is an episode we've been hoping to do for some time now, to try to step back and put AI in a much broader context. It turns out the debates we're having now, the anxieties and narratives that swirl around AI today, are not so new. In some cases, they're millennia old.
Alright friends, now to my conversation with Elly Truitt and Adrienne Mayor. Enjoy!
A transcript of this episode is available here.
Notes and links
7:15 – The Throne of Solomon does not survive, but it was often rendered in art, for example in this painting by Edward Poynter.
18:00 – For more on the etymology of ‘robot,’ see here.
23:00 – A recent piece about Aristotle’s writings on slavery.
26:00 – An article about the fact that Greek and Roman statues were much more colorful than we think of them today.
30:00 – A recent research article about the Antikythera mechanism.
34:00 – See Adrienne’s popular article about the robots that guarded the relics of the Buddha.
38:45 – See Elly’s article about how automata figured prominently in tombs.
47:00 – See Elly’s recent video lecture about mechanical clocks and the “invention of time.” For more on the rise of mechanistic thinking—and clocks as important metaphors in that rise—see Jessica Riskin’s book, The Restless Clock.
50:00 – An article about a “torture robot” of ancient Sparta.
58:00 – A painting of the “Iron Knight” in Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.
Adrienne Mayor recommends:
The Greeks and the New, by Armand D’Angour
Classical Traditions in Science Fiction, edited by Brett Rogers and Benjamin Stevens
In Our Own Image, by George Zarkadakis
Ancient Inventions, by Peter James and Nick Thorpe
Elly Truitt recommends:
AI Narratives, edited by Stephen Cave, Kanta Dihal, and Sarah Dillon
The Love Makers, by Aifric Campbell
Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI) (https://disi.org), which is made possible by a generous grant from the Templeton World Charity Foundation to UCLA. It is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from Assistant Producer Urte Laukaityte and with creative support from DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Our artwork is by Ben Oldroyd (https://www.mayhilldesigns.co.uk/). Our transcripts are created by Sarah Dopierala (https://sarahdopierala.wordpress.com/).
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