The Mythos of Artificial Intelligence

From the early emergence of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries the romantic notions of artificial intelligence and robotics have left an impression upon the fanciful imaginations of the human mind, left to be expressed through our creativity. Whether it was H.G. Well’s canonical Time Machine and War of the Worlds or Mary Shelley’s modern day Prometheus tale Frankenstein, the role played by science and namely machines, machine-learning, robotics, and artificial intelligence, has only ever expanded. From the birth of science fiction we have constantly been in this phase of building a strong and virile mythos of AI which has been integral to our navigation of a world where this technology exists parallel to us. If we listen to the bravest and most daring of historians and scholars today, we are prompted to look further back to Hesiod and Homeric myths in Greek literature in an attempt to trace the timeline for just how long, did we as a race, remain fascinated by the implication of artificial intelligence.
The first known record of automated technologies comes from the Middle Ages. It was a time of rapid mechanical innovation, which included mechanic water devices, steam powered clocks, mechanical armies of archers, bronze heads, and fully automated gardens complete with mechanical aviary birds. E.R. Truitt’s book Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art, explores the trajectory of these inventions and how these early experimentations with primitive motor movements created the first roadmap for modern day AI. They sparked our understanding of the relationship between man and machine, its intersection with art, invention, and nature, and perhaps this was the first time that the question of giving man-made creation a consciousness, and the ability of having an independent existence, or a thought process, came to the fore. The question of drawing boundaries between what was nature and what was a mirror to nature, which is what AI attempts to be, was seeded in the time-period between the 9th and the 15th centuries.

Where was the line going to be drawn between the sacred and the god-given as separate from the artifice, the mechanical, and the man-made, these early scientific minds would come to wonder. A crucial debate today runs along those lines, and is perhaps approached with far more trepidation, and that is within the ethics of AI; the dangers that it may pose, with doyens in the field like Elon Musk raising an alarm. It makes one wonder whether this is the first time that these issues of giving power to AI in the form of consciousness have risen, did the early thinkers and inventors not consider the potential both positive and negative, and if they did what was their approach in coming to terms with it.

It is helpful to consider the spirit of the Renaissance period, where a deeply ingrained ideal of what drives creation was this notion of the divine and the muses, as is explored in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. These external entities were believed by many to be the source of their genius, and in having that external impetus behind these extraordinary inventions of artifices, it was perhaps easy to shoulder the responsibility that came with creating them. It made carrying the existential burden of giving machines and man-made inventions a consciousness, and creating something which one day may very well be beyond human control, not that urgent of an issue. Therefore, in that invigorating environment of scientific and creative temper, these mechanical innovations, the early AI experimentations (so to speak), became a medium for humanity to connect with the divine, with the universe, and with the very laws that founded the basis of human existence. Medieval automata gave those early thinkers the ultimate field of creation through which we could explain our own bodies and their relationship with our environments, forming the pillars of natural philosophy and paving the way for what we would come to develop as modern science.

Interestingly enough the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of the robot, a mechanical invention, is demarcated into two definitions. The first explicitly belongs to the realm of science fiction or scientific romances as they were once known and is something along the lines of, “a machine resembling a human being and able to replicate certain human movements and functions automatically.” Then there is the second definition which is meant for greater real-world application and states, “A machine capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically, especially one programmable by a computer”. It is a fascinating line of distinction drawn between these two remarkably similar definitions. The one of fictional realms is shockingly rudimentary and somewhat primitive, almost begging for an update, a surprising fact when one considers just how far the imagination and wonder in the realms of science fiction has been a precursor to reality. The process of creation begins from idea to thought-process to realisation to execution, and time and time again these ideas have germinated within the creative space of the human consciousness. This human consciousness which was built upon cultural myths, a collective of stories encapsulating the entirety of the human experience which historically imagined what a world driven by machines and AI technology would look like.

A look at these pre-scientific myths creates an eerie parallel between our approach to machines and AI, that is almost hard to miss. In the myth of Prometheus which went on to become a source of inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; Prometheus is the Titan who alongside his brother Epimetheus fought with the Olympians against their own race. It was said that it took the Olympian gods several tries to create man, much like it has taken us to create machine men or robots. The first attempt created the Golden Age, a race of men who lived with wisdom and peace, but were unable to procreate and thus perished naturally. The second attempt was the Silver Age, these men were cruel and unkind and did not honour the gods nor respect any natural hierarchy and thus were destroyed by Zeus. The third attempt was the Bronze Age, and these were men created from clay by Prometheus. In a quaint story, after a ceremonial offering of the bull to Zeus, Prometheus switched a gift of bull flesh from mankind to Zeus, for bones covered in hide, which offended Zeus so terrifically that he refused to share the gift of fire with man. In this tale fire symbolised civilisation, it became a means of moving towards gentility. This was consciousness, it opened the door to learning, knowledge, and independent thinking, and in keeping it from mankind Zeus was effectively maintaining the status quo maintaining an interdependence of mankind upon the gods. Prometheus stole the fire for man, giving him the independence and in many ways the freewill to have a true existence. Much like the way Zeus wanted to keep fire from man, we today want to keep consciousness from AI technology. In Hesiod’s tales he imagined the dilemma of having to relinquish control of one’s own creation and see it thrive in ways that leave us the creators as relics of the age, a concern that we are still wrestling with today.
In another tale we have Talos the bronze giant who guarded the island of Crete is perhaps the first mechanical robot to ever be imagined and was said to be created by Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths. Thrice a day he would circle the island of Crete defending its boundaries. In classic texts he is described to have a bronze metal body with a tube running from his head to his feet, with a substance at his core known as ichor a gift from the gods, which brought him life. All invaders hoping to reach the shores of Crete would be slammed with boulders thrown by this great giant, when Jason and the Argonauts approached the shores they found it impossible to face Talos. Finally with the intervention of Medea a sorceress who tricked the giant into believing that she would make him human by removing the bolt at his feet subsequently draining him of life-giving fluid ichor, brought an end to Talos. Once again this mystical ichor, becomes a symbol of consciousness and independent thought, and each time the need to take back control is expressed through taking away this boon of consciousness as a way of maintaining the balance of power.
Even in the earliest myths our perception of the Automaton journey (what is now modern day AI technology) has been much like Pandora’s jar of miseries, which once unleashed cannot be contained or so we believe. What could be a fascinating medium of assistance, governance, creation, and more, is instead viewed with suspicion, trepidation, and downright fear. Sadly this is a reflection of the human condition and civilised society as we view it today, which through experience teaches us of corruptible power. In a world like this AI would stand a slim chance especially when its power to make rational decisions can become the very reason for its corruptibility. Perhaps in forming the area of greys and the in-between that comes with humane experience we could imagine a future of AI consciousness that is not nearly so dark, however if we are to go by the mythos created thus far and the mythos that is still being created the fundamental bond of trust necessary for this is deeply lacked. Even so at the bottom of Pandora’s jar lay the god’s gift of hope, that was meant to be the guiding light through the miseries wreaking the world. Perhaps in a similar vein through the creative expression and the gift of art we could perhaps imagine a gentler parallel existence of mankind and AI.
Header Image Caption: Giulio Bonasone |Epimetheus Opening Pandora’s Box | Engraving | 1531–76 Source: Wikimedia Commons

About The Author

Girinandini graduated in 2017 with a Masters in Creative Writing from Newcastle University, United Kingdom. While at university she published with various literary magazines like Prufrock, Waccamaw; a journal of contemporary literature, and Litro Magazine. Her work has also been included in Waccamaw Journal’s anthology of Best in Publishing:10 Years Retrospective and was nominated for the prestigious American Pushcart Award in 2018. She has worked with refugees and immigrants on storytelling and creative writing with the First Story Foundation in the United Kingdom and is passionate about language and the way writing and storytelling can help us build an understanding of the world. She currently is a freelance writer and has written for Outlook, Vogue, Architectural Digest, and Critical Collective.