You could be forgiven for rolling your eyes at the front cover of Adrienne Mayor’s “Gods and Robots.” It depicts a generic ancient Greek—pointy beard, knee-length tunic—using a hammer to fix an arm onto a dinky robot skeleton. At first sight, this looks very much like a variant on that tired visual trope of ancient marble statues wearing Ray-Bans and suchlike. Just look how relevant the ancient Greeks still are today (yawn).
Remarkably, the Greek and his droid are not in fact the work of an over-keen production designer at Princeton University Press. The cover image faithfully reproduces a mind-bending group of engraved second-century B.C. gemstones from ancient Etruria (in what is now central Italy), which depict a seated Greek craftsman (probably Prometheus, or perhaps the legendary craftsman Daedalus) building a human being from the inside out. On some of the gems, “Prometheus” is shown hammering an arm onto a skeleton; on others, he is building a human body from the top down, starting with the head and torso, fixed on a wooden frame.
Gods and Robots
By Adrienne Mayor
Princeton, 275 pages, $29.95
As Ms. Mayor points out in her absorbing new book, what is really startling about the “Prometheus” gems from Etruria is the fact that they clearly depict the creation of man through “divine artisanship, not just divine will.” In Genesis, God creates Adam out of inert matter; but he does not assemble him in a workshop with hammer, plumb-line and chisel. In most versions of the Prometheus story, humans were similarly molded out of clay, before Athena intervenes with a flash of divine magic that brings the clay dolls to life, much like the invisible spark that flies between God and Adam’s fingers in Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam.” The Etruscan gems, by contrast, seem to show Prometheus creating life through purely technological means—a myth, in other words, of artificial life.
Don’t panic: Ms. Mayor isn’t arguing that the ancient Greeks literally built robots. Instead, she pulls together a remarkable cluster of Greek myths that “express the idea that there might be discoverable practical ways to achieve synthetic nature in the forms of humans or animals; that perhaps there were ways to create artificial life outside or beyond mere magic or fiat.” All of these stories explore the creation of life (bios) through technological skill (techne), a process that she calls biotechne (not a word that existed in antiquity).
Take, for example, one of the most extraordinary of all Greek myths, the story of the giant bronze automaton Talos. Talos was said to have been built by the god Hephaestus to protect King Minos’ kingdom on Crete. He clanked around the shore of the island, hurling stones at foreign ships; if anyone managed to make landfall, he roasted them to death by superheating his body and hugging them. Talos was eventually deactivated by the witch Medea, who (in one version of the myth) removed a bronze rivet on his ankle and drained out the ichor that powered his movement.
Ms. Mayor, a research scholar at Stanford, is an accessible and engaging writer, and she has a truly wonderful topic to play with. But her book is not an unqualified success. A handful of Chinese and Indian folk tales and myths are rather halfheartedly shoehorned in; she seems not quite to have decided whether this is a book about the ancient Greeks or wider premodern thought. More seriously, many of the Greek myths she explores really have very little to do with artificial life. A chapter on myths of eternal youth (the story of Eos and Tithonus) seems oddly out of place, and Ms. Mayor’s attempt to draw analogies between ancient and modern ideas about the prolongation of life is not hugely persuasive. The Greek gods were immortal thanks to their life-giving diet of ambrosia and nectar; “perhaps it is no surprise,” Ms. Mayor hopefully remarks, “that modern life-extension researchers also focus on nutrition and caloric restriction.”
Similarly, many of the alleged proto-robots and precursors of artificial life either imagined or built by the ancient Greeks are really nothing of the sort. Daedalus once made a realistic cow-costume for King Minos’ wife, Pasiphae, to allow her to be mounted by a good-looking bull; it is, I think, a bit of a stretch to interpret this as a “myth about biotechnology” in which Pasiphae became “the internal ‘living’ component of a ‘sexbot’ heifer.” The Greeks were able to imagine self-propelling tripods and men fashioning themselves birdlike wings (Daedalus and Icarus); in the late fourth century B.C., the Athenians built a giant mechanical snail that slithered through the streets of Athens trailing slime (it is not entirely clear why). These gadgets have about as much to do with artificial intelligence as does a modern cuckoo clock.
Overall, “Gods and Robots” feels rather like a punchy magazine article that has been stretched out far beyond its natural length. It is also something of a missed opportunity, since there is in fact an important thread that directly connects ancient Greek thought with modern AI research. The search for artificial intelligence is, in essence, an attempt to mechanize the processes of reasoning that are characteristic of the human mind. The feasibility of “true” AI (as opposed to the kind of stuff your pocket calculator does) therefore depends on a prior understanding of what human reasoning actually is—that is to say, it presupposes a philosophy of mind. Crudely, if you subscribe to a dualist philosophy of mind (the mind is separate from the body, immaterial and transcendent), then attempts to “build” AI are a fool’s errand. But if you follow a functionalist theory of mind (the brain is basically a computer, not fundamentally different from any other bodily organ), then AI is simply a technical problem that will inevitably be solved sooner or later.
You wouldn’t learn it from Ms. Mayor, but this is a problem that greatly exercised ancient thinkers, from Plato onward. In particular, the “functionalist” theory of mind was first fully fleshed out by Aristotle, who put forward a powerful case for deductive logic as the essence of reasoning—in other words, human intelligence as essentially a rule-based mechanism for solving logical problems. It is quite possible to see the Aristotelian approach to the philosophy of mind as a necessary assumption for modern optimism (or disquiet) about our AI futures. “Gods and Robots” does a good line in anecdotes about mechanical snails; but for a serious examination of the ethical and philosophical problems of artificial life, you will need to look elsewhere.
—Mr. Thonemann is the author of “The Hellenistic Age.”