What Do Ancient Greek Robots, AI and Business Have In Common?

Patrick McCloryAI

When most of us think about about robots, we are likely to think about the future. At least, an idea of the future. That idea may be positive or negative depending upon which particular science fiction universe you’re thinking of. There’s a big divide between “The Jetsons” and “Terminator.” We don’t fare so well in the latter.

A “New” Idea? Not Exactly

With that being said, you’d think the idea of robots or robotics is a fairly recent concept. Well, not exactly. In fact, the idea of robots dates back nearly 3,000 years ago to the ancient Greeks, who first bounced around the idea of artificial intelligence, machines and automated devices.

A recent article appearing in the World Economic Forum by Aaron Hertzmann explores the deep history which has connected man to the impossible, and our shared history of dreaming about creating artificial life.

Some of the authors Hertzmann mentions you may have even heard of before; including the famous Homer as well as Hesiod. Hesiod wrote about the story of Talos, who was a giant bronze-like man that was constructed by the Greek god of invention and blacksmithing, Hephaestus. This giant would protect Hephaestus’s island and was automated to throw boulders at enemies to protect the island.

How was he controlled? According to myth; the Gods. However, from a modern perspective this could be seen as an early indication of artificial intelligence. Essentially, Talos was controlled how we might think a “robot” would be controlled. Except, instead of saying “artificial intelligence,” the story goes that he was controlled by the gods.

At the risk of deifying ourselves, it’s hard to imagine that modern day architects of artificial life would envision themselves as anything less than God-like. From Ancient Greece to Frankenstein’s Monster to dark sci-fi tales gone wrong; Man’s fascination with creating life has often led to a belief that the ability to create life, even artificially, is the mark of a God.

Not An Isolated Account

Talos is just one of many “robots” thought up by ancient Greeks. There are many more, and what it boils down to, is humanity has always had a fascination for objects or people not of this lifeforce.

Why? Well, a big reason is that humans are creators. We have cultivated this land to our advantage and to our liking. Everywhere around you, we have made technological advances. Electricity. The sidewalk and pavement, cars, airplanes. Humans have limitations. Our technology has diminished them. Instead of having to wait for the warm weather to survive healthily, we have homes where heat is prevalent in the winter, and air conditioning is common in the summer.

Essentially, we have hacked the world around us by evolution as well as trial and error. The results have been mixed, of course. While no one would argue we haven’t made our own lives easier, it has come at a cost. Our creations have fed as many millions as they’ve destroyed. Built as many buildings as they’ve torn down. The list goes on. The impact on our own psychology, the environment, and even our sense of being has been mixed with both good and bad outcomes.

To borrow from another another ancient tale: Prometheus was the Titan who defied the Gods and gifted fire to humanity. Was fire a gift? It can cook food, provide warmth, bring light, and ward off enemies. It can also burn and destroy.

Those Ancient Greeks might have known a thing or two about human nature.

But What About The Robots?

The fascination with robots or artificial intelligence/machine learning at its core is a desire to create means which improve or enhance our lives. Going back to the story of Talos; he was controlled to perform a function which was to protect the land. Because of this, those who would ordinarily have been charged with protecting the land had a bit more time on their hands for other tasks.

Having technology in our life makes our daily lives easier. The further that advances, theoretically, it makes our lives as a whole easier.

Greek Robots, AI and Business

Going down to a more microscopic level, how does this help business? Well, it helps things run more smooth and more efficiently. Incorporating machine learning, AI and business makes our daily work tasks easier, makes it more user friendly to customers and makes the whole experience more fluid.

If a system or process is in place to, say, optimize your eCommerce customer’s shopping experience, you can focus on other things. When you have an algorithm that can draw valuable insight from client behavior, you can focus on other things. If a giant robot protect your corporate headquarters, you don’t need to hire a security team.

As cool as the latter might sound, it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Modern day security systems are not the same as a giant robot roaming your grounds searching for intruders. However, to the Ancient Greeks; security cameras, motion sensors, bio-metric locks, etc may very well look like robots.

It’s Not Always Sunny on Mt. Olympus

At he same time, it can’t be denied that problems can come with AI as well. We are finite beings and are fallible. The same holds true with artificial intelligence/machine learning.

In the ancient Greek stories, on the surface, these new inventions or robots seem flawless but end up being fallible as well; or have negative repercussions. Talos, by the way, was ultimately defeated.

According to Adrienne Mayor, a research scholar in the classics department in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University:

“Not one of those myths has a good ending once the artificial beings are sent to Earth. It’s almost as if the myths say that it’s great to have these artificial things up in heaven used by the gods. But once they interact with humans, we get chaos and destruction.”

Mayor’s quote here shows us that nothing is perfect. Even, and especially the things which we create. Whether it’s a program, an algorithm, or a robot to do our bidding; fallible beings (us) can create fallible machines. AI and business go together, but they can have a rocky relationship.

So too can we apply this thinking to the way we approach AI/ML in business as well as life. The systems we design are intended to enhance or improve our lives. At the very least, make things a bit easier for us. But they are not without their drawbacks. Nor are they perfect. When Talos was defeated, the island of Crete lost its most important method of defense.

There is therefore a need to create a pragmatic and balanced approach when it comes to adopting new technology. It can be easy to become enamored by the power of AI and ML. AI and business can be a wonderful combination. It can do great things. However, it can also leave your island defenseless if you rely on it too much.