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.