GODS AND ROBOTS by Adrienne Mayor


The Ancient Quest for Artificial Life
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A fascinating unpacking of ancient myths that feature robots and other lifelike beings, some of which bear an eerie resemblance to modern technology.

More than 2,000 years ago, Greek thinkers were already envisioning the spectacular potential of being “made, not born.” As Mayor (The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, 2014, etc.), a research scholar in classics and the history of science at Stanford, writes, during ancient times, “we…find a remarkable set of concepts and ideas that arose in mythology, stories that envisioned ways of imitating, augmenting, and surpassing natural life by means that might be termed bio-techne, ‘life through craft’…ancient versions of what we now call biotechnology.” The bronze giant Talos, protector of Crete, appears in numerous poems and artworks, some dating to 500 B.C.E.; Jason, of the Argonauts, is depicted as battling a phalanx of robotlike soldiers sprung from the earth and programmed to kill. Of course, these episodes are fiction, but they reveal the sophistication of the ancients’ imagined automata. In her meticulous research, the author discovers that the Greeks were hardly alone in conceiving mechanistic warriors, servants, or evil human replicas. Surviving myths from Rome, India, and China also explore ideas of artificial life and intelligence. In her insightful analyses of these tales, Mayor is approachable and engaging, and she infuses many familiar stories with new energy in the context of technology. She adroitly explores the ethical aspects of artificial life, addressing big questions about sentience and agency through the lens of ancient ideas. She also makes a convincing argument that these imagined machines anticipated advances that are considered cutting-edge today. Ultimately, she leaves readers in awe of these thinkers who dreamed of “androids” long before it was conceivable to build them.

A collection of wondrous tales that present ancient myths as the proto–science fiction stories they are.

Pub Date: Nov. 13th, 2018
ISBN: 978-0-691-18351-0
Page count: 280pp
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 2018


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