Adrienne Mayor


On her book Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology

Cover Interview of September 04, 2019

The wide angle

As a folklorist and historian of ancient science, I investigate the crossroads of classical antiquity, literature and art, archaeology, and history. My goal is uncovering historical and scientific realities embedded in mythology, legends, and popular natural knowledge. You could say I’m a historian of human curiosity, seeking the first inklings of the scientific impulse in pre-modern cultures.

Since 2006, I’ve lived in Silicon Valley, California, surrounded by constant innovations in robotics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and other techno-advances. Here one is very aware of the drive to create artificial life, from robots and AI, to surpassing nature, enhancing human powers, and striving for longevity and even immortality. It seemed natural to investigate how deep the roots of such endeavors and desires really are.

Inviting readers to time-travel more than two millennia, to contemplate what are essentially the first science fiction tales told by a pre-industrial society? That may seem ironic as we rush headlong into the future. But I think the sophistication—and the startling relevance—of these ancient dreams of technology might help us understand the timeless link between imagination and science. Humans have been pondering artificial life for ages.

Some imaginary self-propelled devices and androids in the myths foreshadow some of today’s technological inventions of driverless cars, automated machines, and humanoid automatons. There are mythic versions of AI and ancient parallels to the modern “Uncanny Valley” effect—that eerie sensation we have when encountering hyper-realistic robots. Some of the doubt and trepidation about creating artificial life expressed in antiquity anticipate our own practical and ethical dilemmas about AI and playing god by improving on nature.

One fear today is that technology favors tyranny. That notion has ancient roots. In the myths, the autonomous contraptions and robots that Hephaestus made for the gods on Mount Olympus are charming, benign. But when automatons are sent to earth and interact with humans, mayhem and tragedy ensue. The myths seem to caution that such things are marvelous to imagine on an abstract plane but can wreak havoc in the real world. Moreover, in the myths, it’s tyrants like Zeus who deploy deadly automatons against mortals. Indeed, autocrats’ interest in technology continued in historical times, with tyrannical rulers commissioning novel mechanical weaponry for war and machines of malice to torture and kill. Other autocrats, such as Ptolemy Philadelphus of Alexandria, displayed fabulous monumental automatons to demonstrate their wealth and power.

Gods and Robots focuses on mythology and historical inventions in the Greek-influenced world. But the ancient Greeks were not unique in imagining and constructing self-moving devices and animated machines. I include examples from Egypt, Persia, India, and China that show similar ingenuity and innovations in imagining and making artificial life. One of my favorite non-Greek legends tells how Buddha’s bodily relics were guarded for two hundred years by robot warriors, constructed from plans smuggled to India from the Mediterranean world.