Talos of Crete

Talos of Crete: the Argonauts flee Hephaestus’ giant automaton. (From Jason and the Argonauts, 1963, Columbia Pictures. Directed by Don Chaffey. Produced by Charles H. Schneer. Cinematography: Wilkie Cooper. Photograph: Alamy)

Tyrants and Robots

Autocrats have deployed automatons as weapons since antiquity, not just in myth but in reality. 

Long before advances in technology made robots possible, the ancient Greeks explored the idea of creating artificial life in a series of vivid myths about androids and animated statues. As far back as Homer and Hesiod (750-650 BC), the Greeks were imagining robotic servants, life-like replicas of humans and animals, even versions of artificial intelligence (AI). Moreover, the myths reveal that, more than 2,500 years ago, people were already grappling with ethical concerns about AI and robotics that remain unresolved.

A passage in Homer’s Iliad tells how Hephaestus, the blacksmith god of technology and invention, constructed a heavenly forge with a bank of mechanised bellows, programmed to adjust their blasts according to his needs. He built automatic gates that opened and closed to admit the gods’ chariots to Mount Olympus. He also fabricated a fleet of self-propelled tripod ‘butlers’ to deliver ambrosia and nectar to the gods’ feasts. For Apollo’s temple, Hephaestus made a choir of golden women capable of singing the god’s praises. His most remarkable invention was a crew of female androids – the Golden Maidens – who served as his personal assistants. Moving about on their own, bustling to and fro in his workshop, this bevy of gilded young women anticipated the god’s every wish. Homer says they were endowed with human traits of physical strength and intelligence and equipped with divine knowledge, making them the first AI entities in western literature.

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