Adrienne Mayor


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

Cover Interview of September 04, 2019


In historical antiquity, animated devices were actually built, culminating in a host of automatons in the great center of imagination and invention, Alexandria, Egypt. The last chapter of my book surveys real, historical inventions of engineering marvels. Ctesibius, Philo, Heron, and others designed android servants that poured wine, singing birds, moving figures of dragons and serpents, and colossal animated statues. The first model of a bird that could fly was invented by the Greek engineer and politician Archytas, who was a friend of Plato in the fourth century BC. Did “science fiction” myths about self-moving devices inspire the real craftsmen who began to produce wonders of technology? Many of their machines alluded to mythological figures.

Gods and Robots presents a wide range of forms of artificial life in mythology, quests for a longer, even eternal life, superhuman powers borrowed from gods and animals, and automatons and lifelike replicants. The imaginary marvels are not exactly machines, robots, or AI in the modern sense, of course. My book is not intended to suggest direct lines of influence from myth or ancient history to modern technology. Yet the resonances with modern science and popular culture are striking, making the myths as “good to think with” now as they were then.

Sophocles wrote tragedies featuring both Talos and Pandora, now lost. But his paean to human ingenuity survives. Praising the audacious creative powers of men and women in contriving ways to escape and imitate the forces of nature, the playwright noted that the outcomes could be for good or evil. Notably, Aristotle referred to the labor-saving automatons created by Hephaestus in his discussion of slavery. Millennia ago, musings on artificial life were already raising questions of free will, slavery, the origins of evil, natural limits, and what it means to be human. I hope my book might enrich our understanding that imagination has always been the spark that ignites science.