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Fear of AI is an old, old story. Rebelling robots and evil mystery boxes have worried us for millennia

With recent developments in artificial intelligence, fears of rogue systems may seem a fresh concern. But the worries date back millennia, around long before Arnold Schwarzenegger went into the past to hunt Sarah Connor in The Terminator.

Stories such as Pandora, Frankenstein and the golem of Prague highlight the fear of artificial intelligence

A robot with red eyes.

The fears of rogue artificial intelligence may seem like a new concern, with recent developments such as ChatGPT and self-driving cars — but tales of sentient and potentially malevolent technology date back not just decades, but millennia.

According to historians, these themes were around long before Arnold Schwarzenegger played the role of a killer robot and travelled back in time to menace Sarah Connor in 1984's The Terminator.

"People had been thinking about these kinds of devices and inventions and innovations … before the technology existed," Adrienne Mayor, a historian of ancient science and a classical folklorist at Stanford University, told Tapestryhost Mary Hynes.

Stories such as Pandora in ancient Greece, the murderous rampage of a golem in Prague, and Frankenstein's monster are just some of the many dots throughout history that connect our fear of inanimate creations coming to life.

Mayor, whose 2018 book Gods and Robots explores the subject, says some of these legends come with warnings.

Pandora's box

One of the oldest tales dates back to ancient Greece and the story of Pandora. Mayor says in the original story, told by Greek poet Hesiod, Zeus wanted to punish humankind for accepting the gift of fire.

So Zeus commissioned Hephaestus — the god of fire, blacksmiths, craftsmen and volcanoes — to create an artificial woman named Pandora that Zeus described as evil disguised as beauty.

"Zeus sent this lifelike fembot to Earth carrying this jar filled with misery for mortals," said Mayor. "Pandora's mission was to insinuate herself into human society and then open that jar and release all the misery."

In Hesiod's story, Pandora did just that. Prometheus's brother, Epimetheus, fell for the beauty of Pandora, despite his brother's warning. In Greek, Prometheus means looking ahead, while Epimetheus means hindsight.

"We've got foresight versus hindsight right there in one of the oldest myths about artificial life," said Mayor.

Artwork of a woman looking at a jar.

"Prometheans today are concerned about our future with AI and robotics, in contrast to … the overly optimistic Epimetheans, who are easily dazzled by the short-term gains."

Mayor says Pandora isn't the only tale about artificial intelligence in Greek mythology. There's also the story of Talos, the first depiction of a robot-like being in Western literature. Talos was designed by Hephaestus to protect the island of Crete.

"He could pick up and hurl boulders to sink the enemy ships. And then if anyone did come ashore, he could heat his bronze body to red hot and then grab them up and hug them to himself and roast them alive," said Mayor.

But in the story of Jason and the Argonauts, they were able to remove the bolt on Talos's ankle to defeat him.

"So Talos was made by technology and taken down by technology. They took out the bolt, the power source bled out and the giant robot was destroyed," said Mayor.

Fear of creation

Amir Vudka, a lecturer at the department of media studies at the University of Amsterdam, says there are a lot of examples of inanimate objects coming to life and causing chaos, like the story of the golem of Prague.

Vudka says there are many versions of the legend, but in all of them, a rabbi uses magic to create a golem. At first, the golem is a good servant, operating as a kind of robot. In some cases, it would protect people. In other stories, it would just help the rabbi with labour. But it always goes wrong.

Three golem figures on a shelf.

"The golem always gets out of control, eventually, kind of rebelling against his master [and] brings a lot of destruction, death, mayhem," said Vudka.

"What keeps repeating is that perhaps it's not a good idea to create something like this."

These stories repeat throughout culture, says Vudka. From Frankenstien's monster, to robots in Blade Runner and The Terminator, humans keep telling the tale of artificial intelligence that rebels.

"We are very afraid of the unknown. In general, I think humans are usually afraid of what they don't know, of otherness," said Vudka.

Learning from myths

Vudka says there is an important lesson to be learned from the tale of the golem. In the story of the rabbi creating the golem, the rabbi knows the words to reverse the spell and end the golem's rampage.

"You have to know the spell to close it. Otherwise, what do you do when it goes out of control? It might be too late," said Vudka.

That's why, he says, it's important we know how to control the technology we create.

In the story of Pandora, the jar that brought misery to people serves as a black box. Mayor says people know less and less about the technology they use, and ChatGPT can similarly be considered a black box.

A screen.

"There's a tendency for technology to be able to access unimaginably vast and complex data, and then make decisions based on that," said Mayor. "Both the users and the makers will be in the dark as to how those decisions were made by the AI."

Mayor says it's important that we remember that these technological advancements are tools, not new life. She says it puts the responsibility of what AI does onto the creators, not the creations themselves.

And, she says, it shouldn't all be thought of as bad or evil. She said there are also examples of myths where technology brings nothing but blessings.

In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus uses what is basically a self-driving boat that helps him get home safely.

"There is nothing dubious about this. There's nothing bad. It's labour-saving. It fulfills his deepest wish. And these ships appear to be AI-driven … and it's hopeful," said Mayor.

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