Meet Talos, a giant made out of bronze who heats himself to red hot and clasps his enemies to his chestby Charlotte Higgins / December 11, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in Mid-winter (Jan-Feb) 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
Ancient robotics was not just about myths; there were real moving models too. Illustration: Kate Hazell The Greeks are well known for inventing a bunch of useful stuff: theatre, philosophy, history and democracy. Less well known is the fact that they invented robots. Well, as with many claims about the Greeks’ invention of things, that’s not quite right; they didn’t have little classical R2D2s knocking around, wearing tunics and quoting Pindar’s odes. But what is true is that the Greeks came up with all kinds of intriguing stories about artificially created life-forms. As ever, it begins in Homer—in the Iliad, when the goddess Thetis goes to the craftsman god Hephaestus to ask him to make impregnable armour for her son, the hero Achilles. In his workshop she sees his young female assistants, forged from gold: they can speak, they are strong, they are intelligent, says the poem. Then there are the miraculous gold and silver dogs that stand guard outside the palace of Alcinous and Arete in the Odyssey, which seem to hover between sculpture and automated security device. Various mythological sources tell of Talos, a giant made out of bronze who protects the coastline of Crete against invaders, also made by the craft-god Hephaestus, very much the Olympians’ robotics expert. In one version Talos throws stones at hostile ships; in another, more gruesome account, he heats himself to red hot, and clasps his enemies to his chest. It is Medea—the clever, resourceful princess of Colchis—who finally sees off the creature, by figuring out his internal construction. He is powered by a vital fluid that lived in a membrane in his foot—she casts him into a magic sleep and then, like an ancient Greek version of Sarah Connor in the The Terminator, she cuts the membrane. A new book called Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines and Ancient Dreams of Technology by Adrienne Mayor pulls lots of these stories together. But I don’t want you to think there is nothing to ancient robotics but myths. There were real moving models too: in 1st-century AD Egypt, the philosopher and mechanics expert Hero of Alexandria wrote about how to build automata, and construct things powered by wind and steam. (At the University of Glasgow the classics and engineering departments are actually working together on trying to actually build some of his designs.) The utterly fascinating Antikythera Mechanism is not an automaton, but a real analogue computer, perhaps dating from the 1st or 2nd century BC, which was found in a shipwreck in the early 20th century. The fragments of this machine, consisting of a number of bronze meshing gears and an inscribed dial face, can be seen in the Archaeological Museum in Athens. It was used as a calendar, an orrery, and a predictor of astronomical events. Perhaps we’d panic a bit less about “the robots coming for our jobs” if we knew that humans had been peacefully co-exsiting with artificial intelligence for thousands of years. Less respectably, but rather predictably, our classical friends were also quite interested in the possibilities of the sexbot. Pygmalion—whose story appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses—sculpts his fantasy woman and prays every day to the goddess Venus for her to come alive. Eventually she does, her flesh warming up like wax that has been fingered. It is, let’s say, pretty creepy. But these fantasy women and brazen giants show the Greeks exploring those questions that we are still tackling: What are the limits of man-made art and technology? What, in the end, does it mean to be human? Do androids dream of electric sheep?