What Greek myths can teach us about the dangers of AI

We might think that the conception of robots, AI, and automated machines is a modern phenomenon, but, in fact, the idea had already appeared in Western literature nearly 3,000 years ago. Long before Isaac Asimov conceived the Laws of Robotics (1942) and John McCarthy coined the term “Artificial Intelligence” (1995), Ancient Greeks myths were full of stories about intelligent humanoids.

The fact that these mythical humanoids meet the criteria of modern definitions on robotics and AI is impressive in itself. But what’s even more astonishing is that these old tales can provide us with valuable teachings and insights into our modern discourse on artificial intelligence.

Such stories “perpetuated over millennia, are a testament to the persistence of thinking and talking about what it is to be human and what it means to simulate life,” historian Adrienne Mayor, writes in her book Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology.

In other words, the desire to reach beyond humans and create non-biological life by endowing intelligence into machines seems an innate part of our nature. And this is why we can find wisdom to inform contemporary discourse in age-old myths.

Through the dread, hope, and moral dilemmas they express, these stories can provide us with an alternative way to process some of the most pressing questions regarding intelligent machines: how far should we go with AI? And what are the looming moral and practical implications of this technology?

To revisit these questions, we’ll look into three intelligent humanoids in Greek myth: the Golden Maidens, Talos, and Pandora.

The Golden Maidens: the inherent need for labor-saving technology

The Golden Maidens were built by Hephaestus, the god of fire. They’re described as female assistants made of gold who look like living young women, and can anticipate and respond to their maker’s needs.

But most importantly, “they’re endowed with the hallmarks of human beings: consciousness, intelligence, learning, reason, and speech,” Mayor remarks in her book.