Costume design for the character of Medea in The Golden Fleece ballet (1915) by Nadezhda Vladimirovna Lermontova. Photo by Getty Images



Half-human soldiers, robot servants and eagle drones – the Greeks got there first. Could an AI learn from their stories?

by Adrienne Mayor + BIO

Costume design for the character of Medea in The Golden Fleece ballet (1915) by Nadezhda Vladimirovna Lermontova. Photo by Getty Images

The question of what it meant to be human obsessed the ancient Greeks. Time and again, their stories explored the promises and perils of staving off death, extending human capabilities, replicating life. The beloved myths of Hercules, Jason and the Argonauts, the sorceress Medea, the engineer Daedalus, the inventor-god Hephaestus, and the tragically inquisitive Pandora all raised the basic question of the boundaries between human and machine. Today, developments in biotechnology and advances in artificial intelligence (AI) bring a new urgency to questions about the implications of combining the biological and the technological. It’s a discussion that we might say the ancient Greeks began.

Medea, the mythic sorceress whose name means ‘to devise’, knew many arcane arts. These included secrets of rejuvenation. To demonstrate her powers, Medea first appeared to Jason and the Argonauts as a stooped old woman, only to transform herself into a beautiful young princess. Jason fell under her spell and became her lover. He asked Medea to restore the youthful vigour of his aged father, Aeson. Medea drew all the blood from the old man’s veins and replaced it with the juices of powerful herbs.

Old Aeson’s sudden energy and glowing health amazed everyone, including the daughters of the elderly Pelias. They asked Medea to reveal her secret formula so that they might reinvigorate their father. Unknown to them, Pelias was an old enemy of Medea’s. The witch slyly agreed to let them observe her spell. Reciting incantations, she made a great show of sprinkling pharmaka (drugs) into her special ‘cauldron of rejuvenation’. Then Medea brought out an old ram, slit its throat, and placed it in her huge kettle. Abracadabra: a frisky young lamb magically appeared! The gullible daughters returned home and attempted the same technique with their aged father, repeating the magic words, cutting his throat, and submerging him in a pot of boiling water.

Of course, Pelias’s daughters killed him. Medea’s tale links hope and horror, a conjoined pair in reactions to scientific manipulations of life.

The earliest known image of Medea appears on a Greek vase painting of about 500 BC, although the oral tradition is centuries older. As Medea stirs her cauldron, a sheep emerges from the pot. Medea’s ram and lamb are the ancestors of Dolly, the first genetically engineered sheep, which emerged from a cloning experiment in 1997.

The replication of life raises archaic fears. The Doppelgänger effect challenges a human desire for each individual to be unique, irreplaceable.

Deeply imbued with metaphysical insight and forebodings about human manipulation of natural life, these ancient stories seem startlingly of our moment. When remembered as enquiries into what ancient Greeks called bio-techne (bios = life, techne = crafted through the art of science), the ‘science fictions’ of antiquity take on eerie contemporary significance. Medea and other bio-techne myths inspired haunting, dramatic performances and indelible illustrations in classical vase paintings and sculpture.

Meanwhile, in about 400 BC, Archytas, a friend of Plato’s, caused a sensation with his mechanical steam-propelled bird. The Hellenistic engineer Hero of Alexandria devised hundreds of automated machines driven by hydraulics and pneumatics. Other artisans crafted animated figures that made sounds, opened doors, poured wine and even attacked humans. Clearly, bio-techne fascinated the ancient Greeks.

Artificial, undying existence might tantalise but can it ever be magnificent or noble?

Behind these techno-wonders lies a search for perpetual life. For the Greeks, Chronos measured men’s and women’s lives. Time was divided into past, present, and future. Freedom from time promised eternal life but also raised troubling questions. Set adrift in Aeon, infinite time, what would happen to memories? What would happen to love? Without death and senescence, could beauty exist? Without death, was sacrifice or heroic glory still possible? Questing heroes in myths come to terms with physical death, accepting an afterlife in human memory even as they become Homer’s ‘twittering ghosts’ in the Underworld. The myths deliver an existential message: death is inevitable and in fact the possibilities of human dignity, autonomy and heroism depend on mortality.

Indeed, given a choice by the gods, Achilles and other heroes reject long lives of comfort and ease, much less everlasting life. In myth after myth, great heroes and heroines emphatically choose brief, memorable lives of honour, high-stakes risks and courage. ‘If our lives be short – let them be glorious!’ Artificial, undying existence might tantalise but can it ever be magnificent or noble?

Myths about the bravest heroes dramatise the flaws of immortality. When the goddess Thetis dipped her infant son Achilles in the enchanted River Styx to make him invulnerable, she had to hold him by the heel. On the battlefield at Troy, despite his valour, the best Greek champion died not in the honourable face-to-face combat he’d hoped for, but because a poisoned arrow shot from behind pierced Achilles’s mortal heel. It had seemed insignificant, but unforeseen vulnerabilities are endemic to cutting-edge bio-techne.

The desire to overcome death is as old as human consciousness. In the realm of myth, immortality poses dilemmas for both gods and humans. The myth of Eos and Tithonus raises the problem of anticipating every contingency and potential complication. Eos was an immortal goddess who fell in love with mortal Tithonus. The gods granted her request that her lover Tithonus live forever. But Eos had forgotten to specify eternal youth. ‘When loathsome old age pressed full upon Tithonus,’ the myth recounts, Eos despaired. Sadly she placed her beloved in a chamber behind golden doors. ‘There, without the strength to move his once-supple limbs, Tithonus babbles on endlessly.’ In some versions, Tithonus shrivels into a cicada, whose monotonous song is a never-ending plea for death.

Tithonus’s fate continues to hover over the prospect of prolonging human lifespans. Recognising the ‘Tithonus dilemma’ inherent in keeping people alive indefinitely, the biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey founded the SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) Research Foundation in 2009. SENS hopes to find a way to avoid the decrepitude of ageing cells as death is increasingly postponed.

The most searching ancient myths ask whether immortality frees one from suffering and grief. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, the eponymous hero of the Mesopotamian poem desires immortality. But if Gilgamesh were to gain everlasting life, he would spend it eternally mourning the loss of his companion Enkidu.

Or, consider the fate of the wise Centaur Chiron, teacher and friend of Apollo and Hercules. Chiron was accidentally struck by one of Hercules’s arrows tipped with venom from the Hydra monster. The gruesome wound would never heal. Wracked with unbearable pain, the Centaur begged the gods to trade his immortality for relief from pain, for blessed death. Prometheus, the Titan who taught humans the divine secret of fire, also found himself living forever, but with interminable pain. Zeus chained Prometheus to a mountain and dispatched a monstrous eagle to peck out his liver every day. The Titan’s liver grew back overnight, for the eagle to devour again. And again. Forever. Immortality.

Jason’s stones trigger the skeletons’ programming, causing them to destroy each other: an ominous foreshadowing of commanding cyborg soldiers

The horror of regeneration also drives the myth of the many-headed Hydra. Struggling to kill the writhing monster, Hercules lopped off each snaky head, and watched aghast as two more grew back in its place. Finally, he hit on the technique of cauterising each neck with a flaming torch. But the central head of the Hydra was immortal and could never be destroyed. Hercules buried the indestructible head in the ground and rolled a huge boulder over the spot to warn off humans. Even buried deep in the earth, the Hydra’s fangs continued to ooze deadly venom. This time, immortality was literally poisonous.

In another example, Jason and the Argonauts were menaced by a legion of terrifying replicants. Compelled by Medea’s hostile father to harvest an army from dragon’s teeth, Jason plows a field with a yoke of fire-breathing mechanical oxen manufactured by the legendary inventor Daedalus. He sows the dragon’s teeth in the soil. From the seeds, multitudes of invincible, fully armed skeleton-warriors spring up from the ground. But the uncanny crop of soldiers lacks one crucial attribute: they cannot be ordered or led. They only attack, ceaselessly. Medea’s father intended the army to destroy the Argonauts. The grim androids advance on Jason and his men. Desperate to halt the multiplying, uncontrollable mob, Jason throws stones into their midst. The impacts trigger the skeletons’ programming, causing them to fight the nearest soldier and thereby destroy each other. Some scholars believe the archaic tale predates Homer. The story is an ominous foreshadowing of the task of commanding cyborg soldiers.

Another series of myths credited Daedalus, the genius of Crete, with mechanical wonders. It was he who fabricated the drone-like eagle that perpetually attacked Prometheus’ liver. His most well-known experiment, to fly like a bird with manmade wings, has become a cliché of tragic hubris. Enraptured by the miracle of flight, Daedalus’s son Icarus soared too high. The Sun melted the wax component of the bronze feathers, the wings failed, and Icarus plunged to his death. Like other myths about immortality and augmenting human capabilities, the story points to the impossibility of anticipating mundane but fatal technical imperfections.

Greek legends claimed Daedalus was the first mortal to create ‘living statues’. His ‘living statues’ were animated bronze sculptures that appeared to be endowed with life as they rolled their eyes, perspired, shed tears, bled, spoke and moved their limbs. From his workshop emerged the biomimetic cow made of wood and hide, so realistic that it fooled a bull into mating with it, to satisfy Queen Pasiphae’s perverse lust. The result of this union of human, machine and animal was the Minotaur, a hideous creature with a man’s body and a bull’s head. He was destined to become the man-eating ogre imprisoned in the Labyrinth (another Daedalus design), until finally killed by the hero Theseus. Again, ancient bio-techne fused human and machine – and generated a monster.

Hephaestus, the god of invention and technology, also engineered robots to obey commands and move on their own. It is this divine metalsmith who possesses antiquity’s greatest resumé of bio-techne. Hephaestus manufactured a pair of mechanical gold and silver dogs to guard a king’s palace. His four robotic horses pulled a chariot, ‘kicking up dust with brass hooves and emitting a whinnying sound’. After the hero Pelops was chopped to pieces and resurrected by the gods, Hephaestus made a replacement shoulder blade of ivory.

Hephaestus devised a fleet of ‘driverless’ tripods on wheels that responded to commands to deliver food and wine. That led to his invention of a covey of life-sized golden maids to do his bidding. The robotic servants were ‘like real young women, with sense and reason, strength, even voices, and they were endowed with all the learning of immortals’. What Silicon Valley AI enthusiast could surpass such aspirations?

Hephaestus’s marvels were imagined by an ancient society not usually considered technologically advanced. Bio-techne creatures enchanted a culture that existed millennia before the advent of robots that can win complex games, hold conversations, analyse massive data, and infer human desires. But whose desires will AI robots reflect? From whom will they learn?

Microsoft’s teenage fem-chatbot Tay presents a contemporary cautionary tale. In March 2016, Tay went live on Twitter. Intricately programmed to mimic neural networks in the human brain, Tay was supposed to learn from her human ‘friends’. She was expected to articulate conversational gambits without filters or behavioural supervision. Within hours, malicious followers on Twitter caused Tay to morph into an internet troll, spewing racist and sexist vitriol. After less than 12 hours, she was terminated by her makers. Her easily corrupted learning system dampened optimism in self-educating AI and smart robots.

The ancient historians Polybius and Plutarch described a deliberately diabolical female robot. She was created for Nabis, the last king of Sparta, in the image of his vicious wife Apega. A brutal tyrant, Nabis came to power in 207 BC, and during his reign he extorted large sums of money from wealthy subjects. Greek sculptors were celebrated for extraordinarily realistic portrait statues with natural colouring, human hair and glass eyes. Nabis dressed this lifelike mannequin in his wife’s finery, which covered breasts that were studded with nails. Rich citizens were first plied with a great deal of wine and, if they refused to pay up, they were introduced to ‘Apega’, who would be more persuasive. As the drunken guest rose to greet the ‘queen’, King Nabis controlled a series of levers hidden in the robot’s back. She raised her arms and clutched the man, tightening her grip and crushing him to her spiky bosom. For this and other outrages, Nabis was assassinated in 192 BC. Many centuries later, medieval torturers would devise a crude version of the sophisticated Iron Maiden of Sparta.

The Argonautica, the epic poem about Jason and the Argonauts, also envisioned a murderous robot, Talos, one of Hephaestus’s most memorable creations. Talos was a gigantic bronze warrior programmed to guard the island of Crete by hurling boulders at approaching ships. He possessed another combat speciality, modelled on a human trait. Like the robot queen Apega, Talos could execute a chilling perversion of the universal gesture of human warmth, the embrace. With the ability to heat his bronze body red-hot, Talos would hug a victim, roasting them alive. How would Jason and the Argonauts escape from this bionic monster?

By using bio-techne to counter bio-techne. Medea knew that Hephaestus had created Talos with a single artery through which ichor, the mysterious life-fluid of the gods, pulsed from his neck to his ankle. A single bronze nail sealed Talos’s ‘vivisytem’.

Are Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates the Promethean Titans of our era?

Medea convinced Talos that she could make him invincible by removing the bronze nail. But when the nail was pulled out, the ichor flowed out of Talos like molten metal, and his ‘life’ ebbed away. Medea had taken advantage of imaginary replicants’ perennial desire, from Talos to Frankenstein’s monster to Blade Runner: we believe they harbour human longings.

The capstone of Hephaestus’s laboratory was a female android requested by Zeus. Zeus wanted to punish humans for accepting the divine technology of fire stolen by Prometheus. And their punishment, created by Hephaestus, was Pandora (‘All Gifts’). Each of the gods endowed her with a human trait. Pandora possessed beauty, charm, musical talent, knowledge of healing and other arts, intelligence, daring and, of course, insatiable curiosity. Pandora is the gods’ AI Agent. She comes in the form of a lovely young woman, and she is sent to Earth carrying a sealed chest, which contains another set of ‘gifts’.

The friendly Titan Prometheus warned humankind that Pandora’s box should never be opened. Are Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates the Promethean Titans of our era? They have warned scientists to stop the reckless pursuit of AI because once set in motion, humans cannot control it. ‘Deep learning’ algorithms allow AI computers to extract patterns from vast data, extrapolate to novel situations, and decide on actions with no human guidance. Inevitably, AI robots will ask questions of their own devising. Computers have already developed altruism and deceit on their own. Will AI become curious to discover hidden knowledge and act by its own logic?

Pandora’s all-too-human, risk-taking, curious nature compelled her to open the chest. Out of Pandora’s box flew pestilence, disaster, misfortune. In simple versions of the myth, the last thing to flutter out of Pandora’s box was hope. But deeper, darker versions say that instead of hope, the last thing in the box was ‘anticipation of misfortune’. In this version, Pandora panicked and slammed down the lid, trapping foreknowledge inside. Deprived of the ability to foresee the future, humankind received what we call ‘hope’.

Since antiquity, philosophers have debated whether hope should be considered the best or the worst of the entities in Pandora’s sealed box. As human ingenuity, curiosity and audacity continue to test the boundaries of biological life and death, human and machine, this question will be posed to each new generation. Our world is of course unprecedented in the scale of techno-possibilities. But the unsettling push-pull of scientific nightmares and grand dreams is timeless. The ancient Greeks knew the quintessential attribute of humankind is always to be tempted to reach ‘beyond human’.

Earlier this year, engineers at the US weapons manufacturer Raytheon created three diminutive learning robots. They gave the robots classical names: Zeus, Athena and Hercules. With neural systems modelled on those of cockroaches and octopuses, the little solar-powered robots were bestowed with three gifts: the ability to move, a craving for darkness, and the capacity to recharge in sunlight. The robots quickly learned to mutate and soon understood that they must venture into excruciating light to recharge or die. This seemingly simple learning conflict parallels human ‘cognitive economy’, in which emotions help the brain allocate resources and strategise. Other AI experiments are teaching computers how human strangers convey goodwill to one another and how mortals react to negative and positive emotions.

Computers might be modelled on human brains but human minds do not work just like computers

Since Hawking warned that ‘AI could spell the end of the human race’, some scientists are proposing that human values and ethics could be taught to robots by having them read stories. Fables, novels, and other literature, even a database of Hollywood movie plots could serve as a kind of ‘human user manual’ for computers. One such system is named Scheherazade, in homage to the heroine of One Thousand and One Nights, the legendary Persian philosopher-storyteller who had memorised myriad tales from lost civilisations. For now, the stories are simple, showing computers how to behave like good rather than psychotic humans. With the goal of interacting empathetically with human beings and responding appropriately to their emotions, more complex narratives are to be added to the computer’s repertoire. The idea is that stories would be valuable when AI achieves the human mental tool of ‘transfer learning’, symbolic reasoning by analogy, to make decisions without guidance.

Computers might be modelled on human brains but human minds do not work just like computers. We are learning that our cognitive function and rational thinking depends on emotions. Stories appeal to emotions, pathos. Stories continue to live as long as they summon ambiguous emotions, as long as they resonate with real dilemmas and are good to think with. In ages past, Greeks told themselves stories to understand humankind’s yearning to exceed biological limits. Bio-techne myths are a testament to the persistence of thinking and talking about what it is to be human. Mythic insights and wisdom deepen our conversations about AI. Might some of these myths also play a role in teaching AI to better understand humankind’s conflicted yearnings? Perhaps someday AI entities will absorb mortals’ most profound wishes and fears as expressed in ancient myths and will grasp the tangled expectations we have of AI creations. Through learning that humans foresaw their existence and contemplated some of the quandaries they might encounter, AI entities might be better able to comprehend the quandaries that they pose for us.

The rise of a robot-artificial intelligence ‘culture’ no longer seems far-fetched. AI’s human inventors and mentors are already building that culture’s logos, ethos and pathos. As humans are enhanced by technology and become more like machines, robots are becoming infused with something like humanity. We are approaching what some call the new dawn of robo-humanity. When that day comes, what myths will we tell ourselves? The answer will shape how and what robots learn, too.