This is the first part of a two-part story. Find the second part here.
Creation stories and the artificial man
The “artificial man” is not a new concept. Today, we call them robots, but many cultures have a myth about the creation of man and often it is a god who, through the use of divine powers, makes man out of some inanimate material. We all know the version of the Bible:
7 And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.
8 And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. (King James Bible, Genesis 2)
A very poetic version of the creation story can be found in the Slavonic Book of Enoch:
And on the sixth day I commanded my wisdom to create man out of the seven components:
his flesh from the earth;
his blood from dew and from the sun;
his eyes from the bottomless sea;
his bones from the stone;
his reason from the mobility of angels and from the clouds;
his veins and hair from the grass of the earth;
his spirit from my spirit and from the wind.
Creation of a man from nothing is the ultimate fantasy of human empowerment, and it is not surprising that people from all cultures have been drawn to it. For tens of thousands of years we have been able to make effective tools for our everyday needs; for thousands we have been creating cities, domesticating animals and planting crops; we are now able to repair human bodies and to fight illnesses; but the dream of creating a full human being from inanimate materials is still far out of reach for our 21st century technologies. Our fascination with AI, though, surely owes a lot to that dream. When an intelligent, connected speaker in one’s home is able to answer a simple, verbal question, the whole process has an almost magical appeal to it. And creating AI systems is a thrill next only to actually creating live human beings.
Elisabeth Frenzel, a professor of literature studies, pointed out that the theme is not only connected to man’s urge to create, but also to the fear that the creature could in the end overtake and suppress its creator, and that therefore most of these creation stories end unhappily.
For the following, let’s understand “Artificial Man” as a (fictional) human-like creature, which has been created by man by means other than natural reproduction. The list of such imagined creatures is very long and spans millennia and the whole globe. We will therefore look only at a very few prominent examples.
The artificial man in Ancient Greece and Rome
According to the Roman poet Ovid, Prometheus, a Greek demi-god, formed men from soil and water and then he gave them life. This is very similar to the Biblical creation story of Adam.
Hephaistos was the ancient Greek god of technology, blacksmiths, craftsmen, artisans, sculptors, metals, metallurgy, fire and volcanoes. Hephaistos was said to have created multiple artificial men. Among others, several young women, made of gold, and the bronze giant Talos, who was created to guard the Minoan kingdom of Crete. Talos was killed by the attacking Argonauts, who removed the nail which sealed the giant’s blood stream. His “blood” of molten metal flowed out of him and he died.
Daedalos is the most famous (mythical) ancient Greek engineer. He is supposed to have lived in Minoan times, 2700-1450 BC. He is the one who made wings out of wax, with which he and his son, Icarus, escaped from their prison on Crete. Icarus, despite warnings, flew too high, and the sun melted his wings. He drowned in the sea. Perhaps you have heard this story.
But Daedalos’ engineering skills don’t stop here. He was also supposed to have invented axe, saw, glue, and drill, and he was the architect of the labyrinth (maze) that was used to imprison the Minotaur: a mythical creature, half bull and half man.
Daedalos created statues, which looked so “alive” that they had to be tied down in order to prevent them from walking away.
Pygmalion, finally, was an ancient (mythical) sculptor who created the statue of a girl, Galatea. She was so beautiful that Pygmalion fell in love with her. The Gods, having pity with him, brought Galatea to life so that the two could be together. Later this motive was used by George Bernard Shaw in his theatre play “Pygmalion,” which became the famous musical “My Fair Lady.” Just like old Pygmalion, Professor Higgins “creates” Eliza as a social person, sculpts her into what he considers to be a “life” and, in the end, falls in love with his creation.
Characteristics of ancient robot “technology”
Looking at these examples, what can we say about the Ancient Greek view of how to create artificial men? What are the characteristics of this “technology”?
First, artificial humans are created as statues, as works of art (not of medicine or engineering). This clearly shows the high status that artists and art had in ancient Greek and Roman culture. Since creating life was the ultimate power, it is logical that this would be associated with the most elevated and most respected class of human beings: the artists who commanded the mysterious forces of creativity, and who already created fictional characters in theatre plays, as well as lifelike pictures and statues of men and women. It is also revealing that today we would expect artificial men created by artists to be “fake,” mere images. Instead, we would look to computer scientists to provide us with the real, working thing, thus revealing our own culture’s contempt for art and the elevation of technology and its representatives to the highest, most powerful and most respected positions in society.
Second, in the ancient stories, the artist creates the likeness, not the “life.” The life force is usually bestowed by a god. Humans cannot give life by themselves (except by birth, which, arguably, is not the creation of new life, but the continuation of the parents’ life in a separate physical organism).
Third, the “life” of statues is a separate “substance” or “property”. The Greek concept of man is a dualist one, in which the physical substance of a statue can be separated from its life. First the statue or the artificial man is created, then the spark of life is put into it. So we have two distinct “things” or entities here: the body and the soul. In ancient Greek and Roman myth, artificial men are usually produced as works of art, and then given life by divine intervention.
Thanks for reading! In the next post in this series, we will look at modern myths of artificial men. Subscribe so you don’t miss it!