Adrienne Mayor, Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology

Adrienne Mayor, Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018). 275pp. £24.00 Hb. ISBN 9780691183510.

In Alex Garland’s 2014 film, Ex Machina, the character Nathan Bateman mutters under his breath ‘it is what it is, it’s Promethean’, before passing out on his sofa in a drunken stupor. Bateman, the CEO of the tech company Blue Book, is the creator of Ava, a humanoid artificial intelligence and the film’s most compelling subject. Bateman’s comment acknowledges that he, like Prometheus, who in the ancient Greek myths created human beings from clay, has, by creating Ava, also manufactured life. Ava, to use the terms Adrienne Mayor sets out in her beautifully written and engrossing book, Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines and Ancient Dreams of Technology, was ‘made, not born’. She is a biotechne: a ‘life through craft’ (1). As such, Ava and, indeed, the film are just one of the more recent examples of ancient stories (in this case the Pygmalion myth), being updated for a modern audience. What is fascinating however, and what Mayor’s book makes very apparent – and what Bateman’s ‘Promethean’ remark indicates – is just how much our modern notions of artificial intelligence are informed and permeated by these ‘ancient dreams of technology’.

Divided into nine chapters, Gods and Robots… is a timely and fascinating exploration of the ‘deep roots of the quest for life that is made, not born’ (6). Beginning with an account of the bronze giant Talos and his relationship with the ‘techno-witch’ Medea, Mayor reveals how our modern concerns and questions about AI are, in fact, nothing new. Talos, was a giant bronze statue who, as Mayor points out, was ‘programmed’ to patrol and defend the island of Crete by throwing boulders and picking up and hugging invaders to his red-hot chest. When Jason and the Argonauts attempt to escape Crete, and flee from Talos, it is Medea, Jason’s lover, who helps them. Using her knowledge of robotics, she understands that Talos has a single vein or artery that runs from his head to his foot that is imbued with the life-giving fluid of the gods, ichor. Talos’s weak point, then, is a bolt in his ankle, which if removed or opened, would drain away his life force. Medea manages to make Talos stumble, breaking the bolt, and consequently toppling the giant statue. In another version of the tale, Medea convinces Talos that if he removes the bolt, she can make him immortal. What is interesting about this account is that Talos is displaying very human desires which raises familiar questions to anybody who has seen films such as Blade Runner (1982), The Terminator (1984) or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968): where do we demarcate the line between human and machine? And, also, what are the moral and philosophical implications for failing to do so?

The quest for immortality and the attempt to overcome death, which the Talos story signposts, is a theme which Mayor explores throughout the book. In chapter two, for example, Medea is once again the main protagonist where, at Jason’s request, he asks the witch to restore his father’s youth by taking some of Jason’s own allocated years and transferring them to his father. In chapter three, Mayor gives a selected history of how this quest for immortality has manifested itself throughout the stories of the ancient world: ‘To somehow possess ageless immortality like the gods would be the ultimate achievement in a quest for artificial life’ (45), Mayor points out. Importantly, however: ‘the Greeks were also quite aware of the sobering ramifications should such boons be granted’ (45). The Greeks understood that what makes us human is the finiteness of life. To be human is to develop meaningful relationships with other humans and to change over time. In the Odyssey, for example, Odysseus is promised eternal youth and immortality by the nymph Calypso if he stays on the island with her. When Odysseus declines, declaring that he longs to go home and see his wife, Penelope, Calypso simply cannot understand these human feelings and connections. The eternal Gods, lacking such humanity because of their immortality, feel no desire to change or learn and are often involved in petty and childish squabbles. As is typical of Mayor’s approach to her subject, through her detailed discussion of gods and robots, we learn what it is to be human and how these myths can enrich and inform our lives today. If we wanted to create AI’s with empathy and a degree of humanity, perhaps a good place to start would be to develop it with some form of planned obsolescence in mind.

One of the most fascinating chapters in the book is where Mayor examines the Pandora myth. Another figure who was ‘made, not born’, Pandora, writes Mayor, ‘is a beguiling artifice deliberately designed by Zeus with gleeful malice toward the human race’ (157). Angered by Prometheus’s theft of fire, Zeus asks Hephaestus to create a ‘beautiful evil’ that will act as an eternal curse on humanity. Pandora, then, like Bateman’s Ava in Ex Machina, is an ‘artificial female’ designed by an inventor. Pandora is sent to earth with a ‘swarm of evil spirits sealed inside a jar’ and becomes the ‘source of all the misfortunes and sorrows suffered by mortals’ (156). Seduced by Pandora’s beauty, it is Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother, who opens the jar. What makes this chapter especially interesting is how Mayor explores the myth from the perspective of visual culture. By using vases, paintings, statues and plates from ancient Greece to show how different artists interpreted the myth in their own idiosyncratic ways, Mayor demonstrates how much Pandora’s own ‘artificiality’ appealed to the artistic imagination. Perhaps this is unsurprising as artists, like inventors, also make things and are attracted to those stories where creation is at the centre. Mayor’s account works so well, however, because she assembles these fragments of images to generate a rich visual tapestry that analyses the differences and similarities within the myth.

The greatest strength of Gods and Robots… is that it gives us a framework and a set of familiar stories with which we can negotiate our own times. The digital is changing our behaviour as human beings in unforeseen ways and recent geo-political events to do with data harvesting and hacking mean we are more aware than ever of the problematic nature of digital technology. As our technology becomes ever more sophisticated and Artificial Intelligence develops more complexity, we, as Mayor points out, ‘blunder on, hoping for the best’ (177). The Pandora’s box of the digital has only just been opened. Nevertheless, at least we will have Mayor’s enthralling book and the ancient Greeks to provide us with some guidance.

Michael John Goodman, Cardiff University