For thousands of years, the notion of an “intelligent machine” has captivated human imagination, depicting it as an indefatigable assistant, the ultimate soldier, or even a compassionate companion. Even before artificial intelligence became a reality, writers from ancient Greece to Cold War-era weaved fictional tales that mirrored our collective aspirations and apprehensions about AI. Will these intelligent machines assist humanity in reaching new heights, or will these remarkable inventions rebel against their “masters” and become our downfall?
1 – “The Golden Maidens” by Homer (Not that Homer)
Written almost 3,000 years ago, The Iliad was conceived in a world without electricity, let alone robots or computers. Yet, in 800 B.C., the ancient Greek poet Homer envisioned a godlike power capable of creating intelligent machines.
The poem introduces the god of metalworking, Hephaestus, who was banished from Mt. Olympus for defending his mother during a dispute with Zeus. As a result of his injuries, Hephaestus was disabled, and his disability was ridiculed by the Olympian gods. However, he channelled his humanlike suffering into crafting exquisite works of art, including Achilles’ magnificent shield.
Due to his physical limitations, Hephaestus required assistants in his blacksmithing workshop. Homer wrote that Hephaestus employed his unique abilities to create “attendants made of gold, which seemed like living maidens.” In this brief passage, Homer accurately described humanlike machines programmed to aid their creator.
“They had understanding in their hearts, and voices and strength, and from the immortal gods they were taught. They bustled about their master serving him.”
2 – The Art of Automata in the Ancient Muslim World
Long before modern amusement parks, engineers like Heron of Alexandria crafted complex machines operated by water, wind, or ropes. Two millennia ago, Heron devised a 10-minute puppet play with sound effects using simple machines.
While these skills disappeared in the West after Rome’s decline, automata flourished in the Arab and Muslim world. The Banu Musa brothers, three talented illusionists and engineers from Baghdad, wrote the Book of Ingenious Devices in the 9th century, a compilation of 100 devices, such as trick jugs that spout three types of liquid, including boiling water, and dancing fountains.
The ancient Muslim world’s fascination with intelligent machines is evident in the collection of Middle Eastern legends, 1001 Arabian Nights. In “The Story of the City of Brass,” a group of travelers stumbles upon a brass-made mechanical horseman. Fortunately, it came with instructions:
“O thou who comest up to me, if thou know not the way that leadeth to the City of Brass, rub the hand of the horseman, and he will turn, and then will stop, and in whatsoever direction he stoppeth, thither proceed, without fear and without difficulty; for it will lead thee to the City of Brass.”
As the travelers followed the instructions, the horseman “turned like the blinding lightning, and faced a different direction from that in which they were traveling.”
According to Dihal, “there has been a reappreciation of some of the 1001 Nights stories as what we would now call science fiction because they anticipated some of those ideas.”
3 – Terminator
In his epic poem, Argonautica, the Greek author Apollonius of Rhodes recounted the thrilling tale of Jason and the Argonauts and their search for the Golden Fleece, some five centuries after Homer.
When the Argonauts sailed to the island of Crete, they were confronted by Talos, a bronze giant who hurled boulders as big as houses at their ship. According to certain versions of the Talos myth, he was also an automaton constructed by Hephaestus to guard the shores of Crete and fend off pirates.
“He’s the classic super-soldier,” says Dihal. “He’s colossal, a bronze giant built specifically to safeguard the island of Crete from invaders.”
The descendants of Talos in fiction include the sophisticated robot killers in the Terminator films and the battle droids in the Star Wars franchise.
A few years ago, the U.S. Army experimented with a bulletproof, mechanized exoskeleton suit that they dubbed TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit) as a tribute to what Dihal refers to as “the original killer robot.”
4 – HAL 9000
In Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 sci-fi film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the highly intelligent entity isn’t a robot, but rather a computer. The HAL 9000 is the spaceship’s friendly onboard computer, capable of conversing with human characters and responding as a helpful assistant. However, when it is revealed that HAL made a mistake and the human astronauts plan to shut it down, HAL turns on them and tries to kill them.
Dihal notes that the invention of computers marked a significant shift in AI, demonstrating that a “thinking” machine could exist without a human-like body. HAL’s appearance resembles early computers, and the film explores how a distributed but contained computer “mind” might function.
Another example from the same era is Colossus: The Forbin Project, a sci-fi novel and movie about a supercomputer that takes control of America’s nuclear arsenal and initiates a war with a Soviet supercomputer. According to Dihal, this is an early instance of non-humanoid AI posing an existential threat to humanity. The plot is similar to that of the 1983 film WarGames, in which a powerful military computer mistakes nuclear war for a “game.”
5 – The Sandman
In the 19th-century short story “The Sandman” by German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, an AI is depicted as so realistically human-like that she is mistaken for an actual person. The story follows the protagonist who falls in love with his mentor’s “daughter,” only to discover later that she is actually a machine. This realization is so shocking that it drives him to commit suicide.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, automata-making was a popular trend in Europe, with creations such as the Mechanical Turk, an AI chess-playing machine (which was later revealed to be a fake), and Jacques de Vaucanson’s “digesting duck,” a mechanical duck that could eat and defecate. These advanced machines prompted works of fiction that explored the idea of what would happen if the technology continued to improve to the point where it was difficult to distinguish between humans and machines. “The Sandman” is an example of this kind of story, tapping into the fears and anxieties of the time.
In the 20th century, Sigmund Freud referenced “The Sandman” in his essay “The Uncanny,” in which he described the feeling of “all that arouses dread and creeping horror.” In modern robotics, this concept is known as the “uncanny valley,” referring to the discomfort and unease that can arise when interacting with an AI that is almost human-like but not quite realistic enough, creating a sense of terror.
6 – Frankenstein
Mary Shelley’s gothic novel, Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, was published in 1818, just two years after Hoffmann’s The Sandman. The title is a direct allusion to the Greek myth of Prometheus, who gave fire to humans after stealing it from the gods.
Dihal notes that Frankenstein addresses the same spirit of the times as The Sandman but with a different scientific focus. Although Frankenstein’s creation is biological, it raises the same ethical questions as AI: what limitations should be placed on humanity’s “forbidden” power?
In the novel, Frankenstein’s creature becomes self-aware and desires to live among humans. When the doctor denies the creature a companion, it turns to murder.
The “Frankenstein complex,” which sci-fi author Isaac Asimov dismissed, appears in many modern works of fiction. In the 1982 film Blade Runner, bioengineered AI workers called “replicants” are denied their freedom and rebel against their human masters. In the 2014 movie Ex Machina, a tech guru creates a human-like AI woman who kills him for her freedom, much like Frankenstein’s creature.
Dihal concludes that the “robot uprising” trope in contemporary fiction often contains elements of the Frankenstein story.
7 – The First Robot?
Despite Homer’s depiction of humanlike machines 3,000 years ago, the term “robot” did not exist until the 20th century. The word was coined by Czech playwright Karel Čapek, who introduced it in his 1920 play R.U.R. or Rossum’s Universal Robots, a widely popular work.
Čapek’s play featured robotic characters who were essentially forced laborers, as “robota” means “forced labor” in Old Slavonic.
According to Dihal, the concept of the “robot uprising” originates from Čapek’s play. The robots in the story eventually become fed up with being exploited and revolt, killing their human oppressors. “The play was very much written in the revolutionary spirit of the times,” Dihal notes.
8 – Leonardo da Vinci Robot
In the 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci, a renowned Italian polymath, designed and sketched plans for several mechanical devices, including a humanoid robot. Although his designs were not built during his lifetime, they demonstrate his fascination with the intersection of art, science, and technology.
Leonardo’s fascination with mechanics began early in his life. As a young apprentice, he was exposed to the mechanical arts through his work with Andrea del Verrocchio, a Florentine artist and craftsman. Verrocchio was known for his mastery of various techniques, including painting, sculpture, and metalworking. Under Verrocchio’s tutelage, Leonardo learned the skills that would later allow him to design and build intricate mechanical devices.
Leonardo’s mechanical designs were informed by his study of anatomy and human movement. He believed that understanding the human body was essential to creating realistic depictions of it, and his sketches of the robot demonstrate his keen attention to detail in this regard. The robot was designed to be able to move its head, arms, and legs, and its hands were capable of grasping objects. The design also included a system of gears and pulleys that would allow the robot to be controlled remotely.
While the robot was never built during Leonardo’s lifetime, his sketches and designs were influential in the development of automata in later centuries. Automata are mechanical devices that mimic human or animal behaviour with AI, and they became popular in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries. Leonardo’s designs for the robot were particularly influential, as they demonstrated the potential for machines to replicate human motion and behaviour.
9 – L’Homme Machine
In the 18th century, the field of philosophy was undergoing significant changes, and Julien Offray de la Mettrie was one of the leading figures in the movement. He wrote a book called “L’Homme Machine” or “Man a Machine,” in which he presented a radical theory about the nature of human beings. According to Mettrie, humans were not divine creations but complex machines that followed the same laws of nature as any other physical object.
Mettrie’s book challenged the prevailing beliefs of the time and drew widespread criticism from the religious and philosophical communities. Many argued that Mettrie’s theory was blasphemous and that it reduced humans to mere automatons. However, Mettrie was undeterred and continued to develop his ideas, drawing on the latest scientific discoveries and medical knowledge to support his arguments.
Mettrie’s work was highly influential in the development of modern science and philosophy. His ideas paved the way for the emergence of materialism, which holds that all phenomena, including human thoughts and consciousness, can be explained in terms of physical processes. Today, the idea that humans are complex machines is widely accepted in the scientific community, and research in fields such as neuroscience and cognitive psychology continues to explore the workings of the human brain.
10 – The World Brain
In 1927, the prolific science fiction author H.G. Wells wrote a short story titled “The World Brain” in which he presented a visionary idea that would go on to inspire generations of scientists, technologists, and thinkers. In this story, Wells imagined a global network of interconnected machines that could store and disseminate all of humanity’s knowledge, creating a vast “world brain” that would serve as a collective repository of information and a tool for advancing human understanding.
At the time, Wells’ idea was considered radical and far-fetched, as the technology to create such a system did not yet exist. However, over the decades that followed, advances in computing, telecommunications, and the internet have made the concept of a global brain more feasible than ever before. Today, we are closer than ever to realizing Wells’ vision, as we continue to build the infrastructure and tools necessary to create a truly connected and collaborative world.
11 – Mathematician Ada Lovelace
In the early 19th century, few could have predicted the profound impact that computers would have on society. At the time, the concept of a “computer” referred to a human being who performed complex calculations using pen and paper. But one visionary mathematician, Ada Lovelace, saw the potential for computers to do much more than just arithmetic.
Ada Lovelace was born in London in 1815, the daughter of Lord Byron, one of the most celebrated poets of his day, and his wife Anne Isabella Milbanke, a mathematician and social reformer. Despite her father’s fame, Ada had a troubled childhood marked by her parents’ separation and her mother’s efforts to steer her away from poetry and towards mathematics and science.
Ada’s talent for mathematics was evident from an early age. She studied under some of the leading mathematicians of the day, including Augustus De Morgan and Charles Babbage. Babbage was working on a revolutionary new machine called the Analytical Engine, which he hoped would be able to perform complex calculations automatically.
Ada became fascinated by the possibilities of the Analytical Engine and began to work closely with Babbage, even translating an article about the machine from French into English. But Ada’s contributions went far beyond mere translation. She recognized that the Analytical Engine had the potential to do much more than just mathematical calculations.
In a groundbreaking paper published in 1843, Ada wrote about the “potential for the machine to go beyond mere number-crunching and to manipulate symbols according to rules, just as human minds do.” She envisioned a future in which computers could be used to compose music, create art, and even think for themselves.
Ada’s ideas were far ahead of their time. In an era when women were rarely given the opportunity to pursue careers in science and technology, she was a trailblazer, pushing the boundaries of what was thought possible. Sadly, Ada’s life was cut short by illness, and she never had the chance to see her vision realized.
But her legacy lived on. Ada’s insights into the potential of computers paved the way for future generations of scientists and technologists. Today, we live in a world that would have been unimaginable to Ada and her contemporaries. We have computers that can not only perform complex calculations but also recognize speech, identify objects, and even learn on their own.