The Robots Are Winning!

Her

a film directed by Spike Jonze

Ex Machina

a film directed by Alex Garland
mendelsohn_1-060415.jpg
A24 Films
Alicia Vikander as the robot Ava in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina

1.

We have been dreaming of robots since Homer. In Book 18 of the Iliad, Achilles’ mother, the nymph Thetis, wants to order a new suit of armor for her son, and so she pays a visit to the Olympian atelier of the blacksmith-god Hephaestus, whom she finds hard at work on a series of automata:

…He was crafting twenty tripods
to stand along the walls of his well-built manse,
affixing golden wheels to the bottom of each one
so they might wheel down on their own
[automatoi] to the gods’ assembly
and then return to his house anon: an amazing sight to see.

These are not the only animate household objects to appear in the Homeric epics. In Book 5 of the Iliad we hear that the gates of Olympus swivel on their hinges of their own accord, automatai, to let gods in their chariots in or out, thus anticipating by nearly thirty centuries the automatic garage door. In Book 7 of the Odyssey, Odysseus finds himself the guest of a fabulously wealthy king whose palace includes such conveniences as gold and silver watchdogs, ever alert, never aging. To this class of lifelike but intellectually inert household helpers we might ascribe other automata in the classical tradition. In the Argonautica of Apollonius of Rhodes, a third-century-BC epic about Jason and the Argonauts, a bronze giant called Talos runs three times around the island of Crete each day, protecting Zeus’s beloved Europa: a primitive home alarm system.

As amusing as they are, these devices are not nearly as interesting as certain other machines that appear in classical mythology. A little bit later in that scene in Book 18 of the Iliad, for instance—the one set in Hephaestus’s workshop—the sweating god, after finishing work on his twenty tripods, prepares to greet Thetis to discuss the armor she wants him to make. After toweling himself off, he

donned his robe, and took a sturdy staff, and went toward the door,
limping; whilst round their master his servants swiftly moved,
fashioned completely of gold in the image of living maidens;
in them there is mind, with the faculty of thought; and speech,
and strength, and from the gods they have knowledge of crafts.
These females bustled round about their master….

These remarkable creations clearly represent an (as it were) evolutionary leap forward from the self-propelling tripods. Hephaestus’s humanoid serving women are intelligent: they have mind, they know things, and—most striking of all—they can talk. As such, they are essentially indistinguishable from the first human female, Pandora, as she is described in another work of the same period, Hesiod’s Works and Days. In that text, Pandora begins as inert matter—in this case not gold but clay (Hephaestus creates her golem-like…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!

Online Subscription

Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.

One-Week Access

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.