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Clyde Lewis | February 10, 2021
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During the Super Bowl show with Ryan Gable, I briefly mentioned the story of Jason and the Argonauts and their encounter with the bronze man of Crete. His name was Talos.

You may remember this monster robot in the Ray Harryhausen film, Jason and the Argonauts.

In the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts, the ship Argo sailed to Europa in Crete following Jason’s legendary retrieval of the golden fleece. On the island of Europa, the Argonauts encountered a great metallic giant called Talos, which was cast wholly of solid bronze. His legs, on the other hand, while also made of bronze, were cast completely hollow, and one of them, it was said, contained a single vein through which flowed the divine golden blood of the gods. The presence of the blood within his leg animated the giant, enabling Talos to perform the sole function for which he was created, that is to patrol Europa three times daily in order to protect and guard the land from approaching pirates.

This bronze giant is a rudimentary form of the modern robot and many historians and mythologists rarely talk about.

The story of Talos, first mentioned around 700 B.C. by Hesiod, offers one of the earliest conceptions of a robot,

Thousands of years before machine learning and self-driving cars became reality, the tales of giant bronze robot Talos, an artificial woman named Pandora and their creator god, Hephaestus, filled the imaginations of people in ancient Greece.

The myth of Pandora, first described in Hesiod’s Theogony, is another example of a mythical artificial being, Although much later versions of the story portray Pandora as an innocent woman who unknowingly opened a box of evil, Hesiod’s original described Pandora as an artificial, evil woman built by Hephaestus a blacksmith and sent to Earth on the orders of Zeus to punish humans for discovering fire.

In addition to creating Talos and Pandora, mythical Hephaestus made other self-moving objects, including a set of automated servants, who looked like women but were made of gold.

Historians usually trace the idea of automatons to the Middle Ages, when the first self-moving devices were invented, but the concept of artificial, lifelike creatures’ dates to the myths and legends from at least about 2,700 years ago.

Even while simple mechanical beings were constructed in Ancient Greece and the Islamic and Chinese worlds as well, legends about artificial life proliferated across cultures and centuries, and inevitably had a theological gloss to them. 

It appears then that when we speak of modern cybernetics and the rise of the robots –we can say that they are certainly an archetype of the unconscious mind There have always been the legends of the homunculi or the Jewish legends of the the golem.

Even the name Frankenstein means man of stone and the story of course is about a automaton made of the flesh and bone of a dead man.

The cyborg or the robot is a surrogate for our ingenuity and in the past it reached a point of being of the divine. God created man and man in simile does what God had done – creates the divine machine – one that will eventually be like him in his own image.

I recently read the most intriguing story about a robot that was actually created to lead prayers.

In the year 1550, Juanelo Turriano a 16th-century Italian engineer and royal clockmaker to the Habsburgs made an automaton. This little robot looks like a Friar or a monk.

Periodically, he raises a gripped cross and rosary towards his lips and his jaw drops like a marionette’s, affixing a kiss to the crucifix. Throughout his supplications, those same lips seem to mumble, as if he’s quietly uttering penitential prayers, and occasionally the tiny monk will raise his empty fist to his torso as he beats his breast.

For almost five hundred years, the carved clergyman has made his rounds, wound up by an ingenious internal mechanism hidden underneath his carved Franciscan robes, a monastic robot making his clockwork prayers.

Today his home is the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC.

I was watching a video online about him and realized that the intent of this robot was to offer prayers of thanksgiving and his craftmanship has allowed hum to do so for over 5 centuries.

I kept watching it over and over still marveling over the fact that this monk was a robot devised in the medieval times and that its design is something that was never devised from the inspiration of a science fiction story or comic book.

I have always loved movies, comic books, and science fiction stories about robots. In fact, many of the computers I have owned in my lifetime have been named after famous robots.

Typically, science fiction has either vilified robots or they have reduced to nothing more than elaborate sex toys. Star Wars introduced us to two robots that come off as a futuristic Laurel and Hardy and Douglas Adams gave us a robot named Marvin, paranoid and depressed, a robot aware that he will be no more than a serf to his creators.

My first real intrigue with Robots in the movies was when I attended a Robot film festival in Salt Lake City at the Tower Theater. The film that was flat out Amazing was Fritz Lang’s silent film, Metropolis. It had a soundtrack provided by Queen, Pat Benatar and others.

While social themes play very important parts in Metropolis, the most interesting plot points can all be stemmed back to religious roots. From the first minute of the film, the allusions are there, with the biggest building in Metropolis being called “The New Babel,” even being modeled after Pieter Brueghel’s painting, The Tower of Babel.

At one point, a woman named Maria, a champion of the working class, tells the story of the Tower of Babel, upon which would be written:

“Great is the world and its Creator! And great is Man!”

A charge that is most certainly used in the schools of enlightenment and alchemy—where throughout the reaches of time man shall become the “new man” – which of course is more like a God than man.

The parable of the Tower of Babel, found in Genesis 11, is most famous for explaining the creation of different languages and skin colors, and quite possibly another lesson in divisions because of DNA and bloodlines.

It illustrates social class structures, which reflected the struggles of an emerging democracy in the Weimar Republic.

It also was a reflection of history repeating itself as a people rise against God, and how the super state promises a Garden of Eden, and gives people a real sense of hell.

The differences in presentation between the upper level “thinkers’ and lower level “workers” of Metropolis can be seen as allusions to Heaven and Hell and eventually the crescendo leads to a super state apocalypse as the dead and dying are sacrificed to a machine called Moloch that is made to look like the devil’s mouth.

There has always been a struggle for world domination and that domination includes mass murder, genocide, and the oppression and enslavement of a group of people at the expense of the powerful and privileged.

In every history of the world, there always seems to be the meme of a savior that will somehow rise from the oppressed that will eventually be a selfless care giver to the weak.

Today the question that has intrigued most futurists –will our new saviors be Avatars that have artificial intelligence.

Are we going to create anthropomorphic robots that will eventually save us – or destroy us.

My first computer was named Maria, after the famous robot in Metropolis. I also named a computer of mine Marvin after the paranoid android that appeared in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, another was named Kryton from Red Dwarf, Rosie from the Jetsons and my last computer was named, Chappie.

The home computer I have now has no name really—I once thought of calling it Robbie – like the Robot in Forbidden Planet.

Now I know I am anthropomorphizing a machine by giving it a name, but ask yourself, when is the last time you heard somebody say or you yourself said, “This computer doesn’t like me?” Or, “It doesn’t want to do this?” Or, “It’s sick and needs to have its viruses wiped.”

Now anthropomorphizing machines are not necessarily specific to computers. Some people give human traits to cars, TVs, microwaves, basically every mechanical and/or electrical thing in our lives is sometimes treated as a human or we habitually act as though it has a personality like a dog or a cat or even a girl friend or boyfriend. But I think computers are in a league of their own, probably because we view them as machines that do the work our brains would normally do and so it is as if they have their own personalities or free will.

This is what we get when we stray to close to the uncanny valley.

Yet there are robots that are now being built that look like humans and eventually they will become so lifelike that we will not be able to distinguish them form humans.

Like it or not we apply concepts of mind and sentience to technical artifacts. At this point in our history we can only speak metaphorically about a robot being human or constantly revisiting arobotic Pinocchio story where a robot wants to become a real boy – or a real human.

Our interactions with robots and AI systems appear to be reciprocal and sometimes we see the actions of computer programs as clever facsimiles to that of human to human communication. We see robots on TV like Sophia and say that she looks friendly – or we see other fictional robots like C-3PO or R2 D2 act moody.

We know that technical artifacts are not really clever, friendly or moody. However, there have been times where I have watched Sophia, the famous robot from Hanson Robotics and I get lost in her personality and I have to then realize that it is an illusion and that even though she can act as though she has human qualities she is still a machine.

I remember meeting Big Bird form Sesame Street at a telethon when I was a child – I knew that he was just an elaborate Muppet – but in the presence of the real thing and for the moment, as a child it felt like a religious experience.

I am sure that for some people the same experience would be had if they met Sophia.

There is no arguing about the fact that we often talk about present technology by using metaphors derived from anthropomorphic impulses, there seems to be no consensus about future possibilities. The question comes up: given the rapid and overwhelming advancement of technology in robotics & AI, will the metaphorical ascription of human attributes at some point become non-metaphorical?

I tend to want to rush the decision and speak of the possibilities now because I see the future of robotics as reaching into ethical and spiritual realms.

The idea of a non-metaphorical way to address artificial intelligence by using familiar human attributes and concepts is a well-known topic in Science Fiction. In philosophy, we are thinking in a similar spirit about general concepts like ‘mind’, ‘intelligence’, ‘autonomy’ or ‘social relations’, asking questions about whether we apply the concept of  consciousness to artificial systems.

How does artificial intelligence relate to human thinking? And if artificial agents or robots can have a mind, shouldn’t we be prepared to treat them as entities with some kind of moral status?

A facsimile of a monk is made in the 16th century – it was made to offer prayers – I know it is not actually praying but could there be a ghost in the machine that allows intent to be the sole bearing on whether those prayers are valid?

Some may think it is a silly question – but there are people who believe in Psionics and they will tell you that every time that monk is wound up – the spirit of the creator and his intent for it to be praying and it is by proxy offering up a prayer to God.

Ever since its inception, the research paradigm of artificial intelligence generated computer programs that have enabled us to have conversations with machines in a way very much like conversations with other human beings.

This has opened up possibilities for AI and human looking robots to have deep interactions with people – and for the moment they are believing that the computer somehow understands them—psychoanalyzes them – and gives them advice.

The question of course is whether this is ethical. Some people even believe that making robots in the image of a human is unethical.

Hanson Robotics’ “Sophia” is made to look very similar to humans. But while some scholars dismiss these robots as superficial marketing tools with no intellectual potential, others see in them as a light on the horizon as people walk through that uncanny wintry valley.

There is a worry about how robots and AI systems can become so versatile and knowledgeable that automation will finally free them from needless labor.

But while the ultimate goal of robots to replace, destroy or enslave the human race has now become an old meme, people involved in actual human-robot interactions occasionally find themselves speculating about what the robot might actually think about them; in fact, sometimes in the back of my mind I actually wonder if the AI that answers the phone at my Pharmacy actually records me when I abruptly cut her off and say angrily – “just get me the pharmacy.” Sometimes when I ask Siri to give me information and she screws up, I often tell her to “F-off” and then I think – does Siri remember how verbally abusive I was –and is that why she is doing this? Is she trying to annoy me out of revenge?

Let’s face it — a defining goal of AI and robotics is to build technical artifacts as substitutes, assistants or enhancements of human decision-making and action. For without the aspiration to create tools for automation, optimization and interaction, AI and robotics would not be the significant technologies they are.

On the other hand, we sometimes encounter certain kinds of human likenesses in artifacts while interacting with these technologies – and when we do, it is not always clear what to make of it. How far does the likeness between technical artifacts and humans go? Is it a mandatory part of AI and robotics? Can there be kinds of human likeness in technical artifacts that call for an adaption of our behavior towards them?

Is it ethical to make a robot like Sophia be so lifelike that you forget you are talking to a machine?

We might conclude that philosophy, spirituality and the consciousness argument are, again, thrown back to its original purpose, namely, to think about very basic and general issues in order to clarify them, but without the prospect of actively contributing to technological development.

I guess when we can get our AI companions to pray with us and we can hear them reaching out to spirit and eternal truth, we may be fooled into believing we created them in the image of us – a miracle that was created in the image of God.

Written by Clyde Lewis

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