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  • Lance Hewison

Artificial Intelligence in Ancient Greece

Updated: Jun 11, 2022

Did the ancient Greeks come up with ideas of robots and artificial intelligence over 2,700 years ago? Let's start by looking at the divine inventor Hephaestus as described in Greek mythology.

Hephaestus the Inventor

The Greek god Hephaestus not only served as blacksmith to the gods, but also as their ingenious inventor. Considered the runt of the Olympian litter, he was said to have been born without the divine beauty of the other gods along with a shriveled foot. According to some versions of his myth, his mother Hera, queen of the Olympian gods, gave birth to him parthenogenically (from the Greek parthenos meaning virgin and genesis meaning creation). In other words, a virgin birth. The creation of life from scratch is something we're all familiar with when it comes to divine beings. In the Christian tradition, god uses no more than the dust of the earth to "invent" the first man Adam. And later, Jesus results from parthenogenesis or, as its more often called, an immaculate conception.

Greek God Hephaestus or Vulcan, blacksmith on Mount Olympus
A 16th century Italian statue shows a crippled Hephaestus (Vulcan was his Roman name).

Hephaestus's inventions, however, are markedly different. Most gods simply conjure beings into existence with the help of unseen and unknown forces of magic. Poof! There it is. His creations are, yes, first conjured in the mind, but then designed and constructed, just like we do with our technology today. This makes the inventions of Hephaestus appear surprisingly modern although the stories about him and his creations were written as far back as the 8th century BC. In Homer's Iliad, we get a description of his handmaidens who help him in his workshop on Mount Olympus.

And in support of their master moved his attendants. These are golden, and in appearance like living young women. There is intelligence in their hearts, and there is speech in them and strength, and from the immortal gods they have learned how to do things. These stirred nimbly in support of their master (Homer, Iliad 18. 136).

Red Figure Ancient Greek Vase Painting of Hephaestus, Hermes, and Pandora
Hephaestus, Creation of Pandora, Athenian Red Figure Vase painting ca. 5th century BC

The World's First Robot?

One of his most impressive creations was an automaton (Greek for acting of one's own will) named Talos. Hephaestus constructed the giant, living sculpture out of bronze to protect the island of Crete from pirates and invaders. An intriguing article was written about the connection between the ancient Greek imagination and robots in an article published by Stanford in 2019. Historian Adrienne Mayor said that, "Long before technological advances made self-moving devices possible, ideas about creating artificial life and robots were explored in ancient myths. The story of Talos, first mentioned around 700 B.C. by Hesiod, offers one of the earliest conceptions of a robot."

Red Figure ancient Greek vase showing artist at work
A rare scene on a bowl showing an artist applying paint to help "bring the statue to life", ca. 360–350 B.C.

The Greeks maintained in their civilization an animistic idea that statues are in some sense alive. This kind of art and the animistic belief goes back to the Minoan period, when Daedalus, the builder of the labyrinth, made images which moved of their own accord. Not only did mythology make some startling predictions about the future, but the philosopher Aristotle did as well. Listen to this passage from his work Politics written at around 350 BC.

There is only one condition in which we can imagine managers not needing subordinates, and masters not needing slaves. This condition would be that each instrument could do its own work, at the word of command or by intelligent anticipation, as if a shuttle should weave of itself, and a plectrum should do its own harp playing. Like the statues of Daedalus or the inventions made by Hephaestus, of which Homer wrote that: “Of their own motion they entered the halls of the Gods on Olympus”.

If you haven't seen it yet, check out my video about Hephaestus to learn more about this incredible god and some of his amazing creations, including the first human woman–Pandora!

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