Myths robots and the origins of AI Many Minds Podcast
Aug 2, 2023

Myths, Robots & the Origins of AI with Elly Truitt & Adrienne Mayor (podcast)

The debates, anxieties, and narratives that surround artificial intelligence today may not be so new. In some cases, they’re millennia old.

By Templeton Staff

When did humans first start imagining — and creating — mechanical minds? What were those early robots like, and why did we make them? This conversation with researchers  Elly Truitt and Adrienne Mayor for Many Minds podcast offers an exploration of these questions and also takes a look at what history might teach us about our contemporary ideas about artificial intelligence (AI).

Many Minds podcast host, cognitive scientist, and writer Kensy Cooperrider introduces the episode:

"When we talk about AI, we usually fixate on the future. What’s coming next? Where is the technology going? How will artificial intelligences reshape our lives and worlds? But it’s also worth looking to the past. When did the prospect of manufactured minds first enter the human imagination? When did we start building robots, and what did those early robots do? What are the deeper origins, in other words, not only of artificial intelligences themselves, but of our ideas about those intelligences? 

For this episode, we have two guests who’ve spent a lot of time delving into the deeper history of AI. One is Adrienne Mayor; Adrienne is a Research Scholar in the Department of Classics at Stanford University and the author of the 2018 book, Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology. Our second guest is Elly Truitt; Elly is Associate Professor in the History & Sociology of Science at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the 2015 book, Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art. 

In this conversation, we draw on Adrienne’s expertise in the classical era and Elly’s expertise in the medieval period to dig into the surprisingly long and rich history of AI. We discuss some of the very first imaginings of artificial beings in Greek mythology, including Talos, the giant robot guarding the island of Crete. We talk about some of the very first historical examples of automata, or self-moving devices; these included statues that spoke, mechanical birds that flew, thrones that rose, and clocks that showed the movements of the heavens. We also discuss the long-standing and tangled relationships between AI and power, exoticism, slavery, prediction, and justice. And, finally, we consider some of the most prominent ideas we have about AI today and whether they had precedents in earlier times.

This is an episode we’ve been hoping to do for some time now, to try to step back and put AI in a much broader context. It turns out the debates we’re having now, the anxieties and narratives that swirl around AI today, are not so new. In some cases, they’re millennia old."

Image via (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) (original image)

Play the full episode with the above player.

Learn more about Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences priority.


Templeton World Charity Foundation's Diverse Intelligences is a multiyear, global effort to understand a world alive with brilliance in many forms. Its mission is to promote open-minded, forward-looking inquiry in animal, human, and machine intelligences. We collaborate with leading experts and emerging scholars from around the globe, developing high-caliber projects that advance our comprehension of the constellation of intelligences.

Many Minds is a project of the Diverse Intelligences Summer Institute (DISI), made possible through a grant from TWCF to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). The Many Minds podcast is hosted and produced by Kensy Cooperrider, with help from assistant producer Cecilia Padilla. Creative support is provided by DISI Directors Erica Cartmill and Jacob Foster. Artwork featured as the podcast badge is by Ben Oldroyd.