Chapter One: From Antiquity to 1956 (An Excerpt)

My goal here is to explore significant parts of the world and show how different people, with little or no contact with each other, all pursued AI, though with primitive methods. Egyptian history, being the best documented from the African continent, is the best for this. Ancient Egypt was also the world’s first modern civilization and superpower of its age, so we should consider how the ancient Egyptians conceived of AI.

The Sphinx

The Ancient Egyptians believed that the statues of their gods had spirits, known as ka. In their literature as graphically represented by the hieroglyphics, these statues could gesticulate, talk, and prophesy, just like any other human, apart from their supernatural powers.[i]

The first recorded mention of artificial objects possessing human intelligence from Europe was in Greek mythology with beings like Talos, Galatea, and Pandora. They featured in Homer’s ‘The Iliad.’ One character was Hephaestus, the god of fire, and son of the goddess, Hera, who was cast down from Olympus, the abode of the Greek gods, by his mother, resulting in him becoming crippled. To assist him in his work, he created assistants who could help him work. He also created Talos earlier mentioned on behalf of Zeus, the Greek god of the heavens, as a gift to the goddess Europa. They made this Talos of bronze and he kept watch over the beaches of Crete. He deterred invaders by hurling enormous stones or heating himself to red hot levels, then embracing the invader in a ‘warm’ hug. I can’t think of a nastier way to die.

Pandora

Another creation of Hephaestus is Pandora. Many of us have heard this name, or at least seen it in usage as a figure of expression; ‘Pandora’s Box.’ Hephaestus created her on behalf of Zeus, to bring punishment to humanity for accepting the gift of fire brought by Prometheus. She came bearing a box which they forbid her to open. The gods knew that man’s curiosity would overwhelm the import of this instruction, so they eventually opened it, unleashing all the evil in the world today. This story implies that the world was perfect until the opening of her box, bringing misfortune to the earth.

Pygmalion and the ivory statue of Galatea

Another character created was Galatea by Pygmalion. He created Galatea using ivory as a protest against women of flesh and blood. They had probably broken his heart many times or turned down his advances repeatedly. In his story, the goddess of wisdom, Aphrodite, took pity on him and gave life to Galatea, and they both lived happily ever after.

The truth or veracity of these stories is not the subject of this book. What I’m more concerned with (and I think you should too) is the thinking leading to these stories. All these stories have several things in common. They show that man’s desire to create or replicate himself in one form or the other has existed since the dawn of intelligence. It also shows that in all our attempts at replicating ourselves, the focus has always been on copying only the best, and sometimes the worst in ourselves, but always something more efficient than the natural man, just like modern Artificial Intelligence.

Can you differentiate these end goals from what drives today’s quest for artificial intelligence? Today we exploit science, mathematics, and other empirical methods to achieve AI; the ancients used spiritism, religion, and myth to pursue it. If they had the same tools we now have, they might have delivered AI in its tangible form. The methods may be different, but this proves that the quest for AI started a long time ago, just like I said in the preface.

Golem and a Jewish Rabbi

Another important source of literature about the development of AI lies with the Jews. There is a story about a Rabbi, based in Prague, the Czech Republic of 1580, who made a man from clay and brought him to life. This clay man was known as Golem. The story of Golem centers on a broader Jewish culture and fantasy of the time. Like most stories of the time, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. It was customary for Polish Jews, after observing a fast and some special prayers, to mold a man out of clay or loam. They would then speak certain miracle-working words on it so it would come to life. It could not talk, but it could understand and obey the instructions of its master. The words Aemaeth (Truth, God) would be on its forehead. The downside to this otherwise efficient and obedient slave was the fact that it increased in size every day until the master became afraid of it. Why they would be fearful of something they created to be obedient is not said. Humans naturally have a fear of anything that is physically larger than them. This fear reflects our modern concerns about AI. Why are we afraid of a technology that we’re developing to serve us?

The ancient Jews who created Golems were not without remedy when one of their creations grew beyond their control. Remember when I said that they inscribed the words' Aemaeth on its forehead? All they had to was to wipe off the letters Ae, leaving maeth, meaning death. Upon this, the clay man would collapse into a heap of lifeless clay.

One time, the Rabbi whom this story is centered around forgot to wipe off the first letters. The Golem kept growing so tall that his master could no longer reach his forehead. The Rabbi then commanded him to take off his boots, expecting that he would have to kneel to do so. He did so, giving the master a chance. He needed to wipe off the killer words. However, the Golem collapsed into a great heap of sand that fell on the master and killed him. [ii]

This story perfectly depicts the modern dilemma with AI. We created AI as a simple tool to aid us, but over the years, it has increasingly gotten sophisticated and capable of more independent action, thus leading to the fear that soon, our creations may become our overlords. Chief amongst the proponents of this is Elon Musk, a serial tech entrepreneur and billionaire, who cofounded OpenAI, a non-profit that promotes ethical research and development of AI. We know about the power of AI, we can either halt further development, which might lead to another AI Winter and its attendant consequences, or watch how the development of AI further pans out. (Chapter 7 of this book will discuss this).

[i] Pamela McCorduck, ‘Machines Who Think’ (first published 1979, A K Peters Ltd., 2004)

[ii] E. Dekel & D. G. Gurley, How the Golem came to Prague, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 103, №2 (Spring 2013) 241–258

PS: Since the time this chapter was originally written, OpenAI has since converted to a profit-oriented company,

To read the previous edition titled: PREFACE — My Upcoming Book on the History and Possible Futures of Artificial Intelligence, click here