Playing God: Wisdom from the Greeks or Monsters of Artificial Intelligence?

Apollo (left, his head shining), god of light, prophesy, music, and the arts of civilization, talks to god Hephaistos (closer to Apollo) and the 4 Cyclopes who made the thunderbolt for Zeus. The Forge of Vulcan by Diego Velazquez, 1630. Museo de Prado, Madrid, Spain. Public Domain.

* The use of machines was widespread among the ancient Greeks. In fact, machines and products of craftsmanship were part of the fabric of Greek culture, both political and religious. Even gods (Prometheus, Metis, Athena, and Hephaistos) protected the technological civilization of the Greeks. Indeed, the gods created models of craftsmanship that triggered the Greek imagination for a scientific and technological understanding of the Cosmos.

Greek know-how

The Cyclopes were the earliest engineering geniuses in Greek culture. They manufactured the almighty thunderbolt for Zeus to bring the war among the gods to an end. But the thunderbolt made Zeus supreme.

* The Cyclopes come out of Greek mythology, which is full of gods and heroes embodying extraordinary knowledge and powers. That mythology, which the Greeks considered early history, provided the metaphysics of zeal and success in technical work. The Greeks had an insider’s advantage to craftsmanship. One of their gods, Hephaistos, was a supreme metallurgist and engineer who designed and built the Shield of Achilles and the robot Talos guarding Crete and Zeus’ lover, Europa, in late Minoan Age in the twelfth century BCE.

Stephanos Paipetis, late professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Patras and author of The Unknown Technology in Homer (Springer, 2010), examined the technology in the Homeric epics, the Iliad, and the Odyssey. He concluded that Hephaistos built the Shield of Achilles with advanced knowledge and technology of metals and materials. In other words, Hephaistos “possessed deep knowledge of the dynamic mechanical properties of laminated composite structures.”

A husband and wife archaeologists from the University of Cincinnati, Sharon Stocker, and Jack Davis, unearthed in May 2015 a tiny agate seal stone. This thumb-size gem is engraved with a marvelous picture of a warrior who seems to come out of the Iliad of Homer, perhaps depicting the superhero Achilles killing the Trojan superhero Hector, with another dead soldier sprawled at his feet.

Griffin Warrior. Courtesy of The Palace of Nestor Excavations, The Department of Classics University of Cincinnati.

Of course, this cannot be since this warrior died centuries before the Trojan War. So, the stunning reality about this gem is the detail it offers of the human body. University of Cincinnati Magazine of November 6, 2017, reported Davis saying that such anatomical details does not appear again until the classical age, about a thousand years later. This gem was part of treasure-laden tomb of a warrior who died sometime between 1500 and 1450 BCE in Pylos, southwestern Peloponnesos, Greece. The treasure included four gold rings, precious stone beads, silver cups, ivory combs, a bronze sword and several hundred other objects. One of them was an ivory plaque with a Griffin, a mythical animal possessing a lion’s body and an eagle’s head and wings. This is why the Pylos warrior was dubbed Griffin Warrior.

Like the fantastic image of the Pylos warrior, the gold rings mirror superior craftsmanship. The UC Magazine of October 3, 2016 said the goldsmith used “multiple sheets of gold.” We find similar advanced knowledge and technology in the craftsmanship of the Shield of Achilles. The Pylos warrior died two hundred and forty three years before Odysseus returned home to Ithaca in 1207 BCE. Nevertheless, the culture of the Griffin Warrior, captured in the tiny gem and the technology required for engraving it, informed the Greeks of the Homeric epics.

Aside from the masterpiece qualities of the art and design of the combat scene on the gem, how did the artist work on such a tiny stone? Did he have a magnifying glass? We ask the same question when we see the gear teeth and inscriptions on the Antikythera Mechanism, the computer of genius the Greeks built about twelve and a half centuries after the death of the Pylos warrior.

* The exquisite art of the Griffin Warrior fits nicely into the lavish and unforgettable images painted in the Bronze Age walls of homes at Akrotiri in the Aegean island of Thera at about 3,000 years BCE. The island had more than beautiful art. Akrotiri had two-story houses, paved streets, running water and toilets. This cleanliness reached Western Europe in late nineteenth century.

* Already in the fourth century BCE, the Greeks had high and exacting standards of quality control for metalworking and engineering. For example, a fourth-century inscription from Eleusis directs that the mixture of copper-tin for short metal rods (poloi) and their metal enclosures (empolia) connecting column drums ought to be made up of 11 parts copper and 1 part tin. The metal rods should be designed to rotate in their enclosures shaped like symmetrical cubes dug and fit into the central core of the connecting marble drums of the pillars. Furthermore, the inscription gives the exact specification for the shape, length, thickness, movement, and function of the parts of the metal mechanism. Copper had to have been imported from Marios, Cyprus, a reputable center for pure copper. Finally, the inscription prices the technical work and names the persons responsible for the delivery and installation of the metal parts in the 12-column Stoa being erected in front of the Telesterion of Eleusis. The Telesterion was a gigantic building hosting the ceremonies of the Eleusinian mysteries.

This technological progress dates from the Bronze Age, 3100 – 1000 BCE. The ships of Phaiakians that carried Odysseus from Phaiakia (Kerkyra) to Ithaca, Paipetis says, were so advanced they were governed by Greek-inspired Artificial Intelligence, about which more below. Gearwheels came from that tradition of know-how. The availability of gearwheels explains how the Greeks built the Antikythera Mechanism. By early second century BCE, they had all that was necessary to construct the celestial machine. They had excellent astronomers, mathematicians, craftsmen, metallurgists, and engineers. Their metallurgical know-how dated centuries before the manufacture of the Antikythera computer. Archimedes in the third century BCE used gearwheels in his mechanical models of the universe.

* Even Artificial Intelligence goes back to the ancient Greeks and their gods. One of those gods, Hephaistos, was the master of metallurgy and fire. The second god of Greek-style AI was Athena, daughter of Zeus. She inspired wisdom and achievements in arts and crafts.

* Metis, Athena, and Hephaistos: Gods of Science and Technology

* Athena was goddess of war, wisdom, and the arts and crafts of civilization. Her mother was the water goddess Metis, which, in ancient Greek, means counsel, advising, wisdom, cunning and craft. Metis helped Zeus overcome his father Kronos. Zeus married her, though he had difficulty in embracing her. She was like water, instantly changing form. Nevertheless, Zeus got her pregnant with Athena. However, his grandparents Ouranos (Sky, Heavens) and Gaia (Earth) warned him that Metis was destined to also have a son who would dethrone him. Zeus immediately swallowed pregnant Metis. That way he safeguarded his supreme position among gods and humans while he had at his disposal the extraordinary intelligence of Metis.

* Athena became like her mother, a mighty goddess of intelligence. Like Prometheus, she spurred men in the development of science and technology, especially technical skills, and handicrafts for meeting their own needs and improving their welfare. She invented the bridle for the domestication of the horse, cattle, donkeys, and mules. This invention enabled humans to feed themselves and create civilization.

* Athena also fostered the cultivation of the olive tree, the teaching and practice of carpentry, metalworking, and pottery while she taught women spinning and weaving.

* The Greek historian Diodoros of Sicily (Siculus) and author in the first century BCE of The Library of History, reported that the Greeks honored Athena and Hephaistos. He explained that the Greeks were grateful to Athena because she helped them domesticate and cultivate the olive-tree. This included her instruction on the preparation of the olive fruit.

* During the thirteenth day of Pyanopsion, October-November, the Athenians honored Athena and Hephaistos. In this instance, Athena was Athena Ergane, the Worker, patron of artisans and craftsmen. Hephaistos was the patron of smiths. Bronze workers, Chalkeis, and craftsmen celebrated these two gods in a festival known as Chalkeia. The participating craftsmen, engineers and smiths put their best creations to a competition. Those that won offered their creations to Athena Ergane.

* Diodoros said Hephaistos was the inventor of metallurgy, teaching men all the uses of fire for working iron, copper, gold, silver, and everything else requiring fire. He also invented the remaining uses of fire for the benefit of all men, especially those working in the crafts like pottery. As a result, Diodoros says, “the workers who are skilled in these crafts offer prayers and sacrifices to Hephaistos before all other gods.” Workers and all mankind preserve the memory of this god forever and honor him by calling fire Hephaistos.

Metis-intelligence

* Intelligence, the foundation of science, was a gift primarily of two goddesses, Metis and her daughter, Athena. Because the word metis comes from Metis, goddess of intelligence, it means skill in counsel or device, astuteness, shrewdness, or scheming, as well as what one plans to do and what one has in mind to do. Thus, metis is deliberation and weighing in the mind, necessary steps in doing science.

* Keld Zeruneith, member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters and author of the 2007 book, Wooden Horse, explained the role of metis in Greek culture. He wrote:

* “Metis lies in the individual’s ability to consider and choose lucidly in a critical situation. In this sense, metis is a power of thought and a form of intelligence based on rapidity, acuteness, the ability to change one’s mind, to find new paths, to be directed, precise, pensive, strategic, cunning, and wise. It is crucial that [goddess] Metis derives fundamentally from water. This explains why she can change her nature and transform herself like the waves. Since these metamorphoses contain all possible life forms, it provides her with insight into life’s vicissitudes, an understanding of the beginning and cohesion in past, present and future. This is her true wisdom.”

* Athena’s brother, Hephaistos, was older than her. He was fire and technology. In the eighteenth book of the Iliad, Homer sings about the modern-like engineering works of Hephaistos, especially the golden women robots serving him at his workshop on Olympus and the extraordinary Shield he designed and built for Achilles..

* Hephaistos married Kabeiro, daughter of the sea god Proteus. Hephaistos and Kabeiro had the twin sons known to us with their mother’s name: Kabeiroi. Like their father, Hephaistos, these gods thrived in works of metallurgy and craftsmanship. They were primarily known in the Aegean islands of Lemnos, Syros, Delos, Chios, Paros, and Samothrace as well as in the coastal regions of Thrace, Macedonia, and Thebes in Central Greece. Their works were so beneficial, Greeks celebrated and worshipped them with mysteries, only second in national importance to the mysteries and worship of goddess Demeter in Eleusis.

* The wisdom associated with Metis and Athena links the mind to the hands, inspiring and guiding craftsmen to their useful work. The talent of the craftsmen is applied metis, what we would call applied science. The result of that Metis tradition was philosophers like Aristotle; scientists and engineers like Ktesibios and Archimedes and Philon and astronomers like Eudoxos, Aratos, Eratosthenes, Hipparchos and Ptolemaios. Intelligence was behind the creation of a tremendous variety of weapons, plows, art, pots, clothes, shoes, houses, temples, Sundials, lighthouses, the Antikythera Mechanism, speeches, books, and libraries.

Artificial Intelligence in modern times: Building Frankenstein monsters or a thinking nuclear bomb?

* In the twenty-first century, the advocates of Artificial Intelligence are light-years away from Metis and the ancient Greeks. Like Greek philosophy, Metis has been subverted to meaningless. She no longer exists. David F. Noble, professor of history at York University in Toronto, Canada, and author of The Religion of Technology, says that those talking and “working” on AI are searching for the “immortal mind.” They are on the payroll of the military, and, in return, they are arming the military with even more lethal weapons and technics of surveillance and control. They also transfer their technologies to corporations, “which have deployed them the world over to discipline, deskill, and displace untold millions of people, while concentrating global power and wealth into fewer and fewer hands.” As for genetic engineers, Noble sees them rightly, as laying the “foundations for an Orwellian future.”

* This preposterous vision was at the public relations and bottom line of Google — in 2016. Google is America’s giant information technology company. In a PBS Newshour interview on March 24, 2016, the Google director of engineering, Ray Kurzwell, spoke eloquently about human immortality. He translated what he called “exponential growth of information technology” into “expanding our life expectancy for thousands of years.”

* How did he propose to bring about such a miraculous metamorphosis? He bets that by 2030 we will have extremely powerful computers the size of blood cells. These “little robotic devices,” he says, will flow though the bloodstream eliminating diseases and aging. He also asserts people will be mostly machines, which will do most of their “nonbiological” thinking for them. With such premises, Kurzwell has no doubt Google engineers will extend the lives of very wealthy people “indefinitely.”

* In my view, ideas about human immortality and humans made mostly of computer hardware are products of science fiction. They mirror the nightmares of an amoral oligarchy of high tech and wealth married to militarism. Their immortality schemes are likely to produce more Frankenstein monsters – and worse.

* There’s no way you can teach a machine to be ethical and protective of life. Humans have tried to be ethical and protective of life for millennia and still act like savages. Products of that savagery include centuries of darkness, genocides, slavery, a Darwinian capitalism of the large fish eating the small fish, the denuding of nature and forcing countless species to extinction, nuclear weapons, and climate chaos. How can engineers locked into this amoral system of increasing the number of billionaires, rather than abolishing them, also train machines to be better than themselves?

* Metis, the Greek goddess of intelligence is gone. Even the Greeks fought a savage Peloponnesian War that competed nicely with barbarians slaughtering each other. But at least the Greeks thought about how to civilize each other in the small poleis (city-states) with direct democracy, dramatic theater, philosophy, science, the Olympics, hospitality, and worship of the natural world and the several gods representing both the Cosmos, forces in the natural world, and good society, living well.

* We employ very little of the vast legacy the Greeks left us. We maintain classical architecture for our most beautiful buildings and monuments. We feel pride for our democracy, which is but the rudiment of Greek democracy, being like lipstick. We cannot forget that our former President Donald Trump tried unsuccessfully to overthrow our government on January 6, 2021. And yet, despite his crimes, Trump remains free.

Resurrecting Frankenstein

When it comes to powerful institutions we inherited from the Greeks like science, technology, and law we often weaponize and commercialize them for our own agendas. So, yes, AI is useful for translation. Some Ai machines or chatbots or digital avatars are trained to talk or hallucinate. “The result” says Cade Metz, technology correspondent for the New York Times, “is a practically endless collection of bots that can imitate a practically endless collection of people, riffing on a practically endless number of topics.” For example, a German student, Jonas Thiel, talked to a bot playing Karl Kautsky (1854-1938), a socialist thinker:

“Jonas Thiel: Marxists in your time were very confident that revolution was a historical inevitability. In light of recent defeats socialists across the world have suffered and the lack of class struggle, even in times of great suffering, do you think it is time to revise that view?

“Karl Kautsky: I do not. We may have made mistakes with our tactics, but I refuse to believe that socialism is a pipe dream. I still believe that the proletariat must break the chains of capitalism, and that the working class must unite around marxism. We must remember that capitalism is still deeply flawed and that it is our job as socialists to agitate and spread class consciousness.

“Jonas Thiel: I completely agree, but wasn’t it wrong to assume workers uniting to overthrow the bourgeoisie was inevitable? After all, the capitalist class is very powerful and it is hard for workers to come together to resist collectively rather than individually.

“Karl Kautsky: You are right, it was a mistake to be over optimistic in that regard. But I find it better to believe in class consciousness and revolution until I am proven wrong. What is the alternative? Believing the workers will stay in chains forever? I don’t agree with that. It is better to struggle against capitalism despite our odds then to give in. I refuse to believe the workers will never wake up. Even if I am over optimistic, we must not give in to pessimism. I refuse to be proved wrong. I hope you can understand.””

Certainly, such chatting is interesting and frightening for the implications it mirrors of the expanding training of machines to talk like humans. Chatbots do what intelligent people do, “extrapolate and take ideas from different contexts and merge them together.” They seem to be doing this with “complete confidence. But they do not always tell the truth. Sometimes, they even fail at simple arithmetic. They blend fact with fiction.” The potentials for misinformation and political and military deployment are vast.

So, forget about the social benefits of AI. Artificial Intelligence is just that, artificial. No wonder it is married to the military and corporations. It has nothing to do with real intelligence or metis (thoughtful and ethical consideration or solution of problems related to human health and happiness or understanding of the Cosmos and the natural world). AI is another weapon that mirrors its developers. Violence is popular and profitable. Like the nuclear bombs, AI-machines are bound to explode. Money and profits laces the talk of engineering experts constructing AI machines. It is deceptive and dangerous.

For example, an Israeli-born roboticist, Hod Lipson, director of the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University, is zealous in trying to add consciousness to machines. He is convinced we have to “surrender our life to a robot. You want these machines to be resilient.” And he wants these robots to fix any damage happening to their bodies or functions. In other words, Lipson wants to construct “conscious robots.” He insists it will happen. We may not have any choice. He says:

“This is not just another research question that we’re working on — this is the question. This is bigger than curing cancer. If we can create a machine that will have consciousness on par with a human, this will eclipse everything else we’ve done. That machine itself can cure cancer.”

* Of course, I am not about to surrender my life to a robot. it’s disturbing, however, that scientists and engineers would think and act as if they could program consciousness on machines. But having machines with consciousness is impossible. Consciousness is to know oneself, γνῶθι σ᾽αυτόν, as the Greeks would say. To know oneself is not easy. It takes years, decades, and sometimes an entire life to know oneself. Consciousness also implies self-reliance, including sharing the history, aspirations, hopes, daring, and fears of human beings. Machines / robots could never handle those responsibilities and wisdom. They have no civilization. They are merely mechanical tools, built today and discarded tomorrow. But were such a prospect close to reality, that is, having machines with consciousness, it would be the equivalent of giving birth to mechanical humans. I cannot imagine we have reached a depravity so low that allows this idea in the heads of roboticists (and their billionaire funders) dreaming of omnipotence.

* Fear is encoded in the work of makers of AI machines. There’s also the dark thought these AI monsters could devour their makers. A novelist, Mary Shelley, captured the hubris, aggression and anguish of roboticists playing god. Shelley was prophetic of the misuse of technology in the West. Her 1818 novel, Frankenstein, is about the arrogance of engineers giving birth to monsters. Victor Frankenstein created a terrifying creature that, in good time, turns against him. Our engineers keep following Frankenstein, but never have the conversation Frankenstein had with his creator. “If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear; and chiefly towards you my archenemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguishable hatred,” the monster warns Frankenstein. “Have a care: I will work at your destruction, nor finish until I desolate your heart, so that you shall curse the hour of your birth…. Remember that I have power; you believe yourself miserable, but I can make you so wretched that the light of day will be hateful to you. You are my creator, but I am your master; — obey!”

* Shelley spoke to the winds. A hundred and twenty-sever years after the novel Frankenstein saw the light of the day, scientists and engineers gave birth to a gigantic Frankenstein monster — the nuclear bomb. This bomb is so powerful that it has reorganized the world. The AI monster in the making promises to even exceed the folly of the makers of the nuclear bomb.

* PBS Newshour of July 20, 2017, reported that Stephen Hawking, late British physicist, and Nick Bostrom, director, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University, equated artificial intelligence to a life and death threat to human civilization.

* On November 28, 2022, Kelsey Piper of Vox wrote that AI experts are increasingly afraid of their creations. On December 21, 2022, David Marchese, a writer for the New York Times Magazine put it politely like this:

Artificial Intelligence stirs our highest ambitions and deepest fears like few other technologies. It’s as if every gleaming and Promethean promise of machines able to perform tasks at speeds and with skills of which we can only dream carries with it a countervailing nightmare of human displacement and obsolescence.”

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.