The Ancient Origins of Automation

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Merchant, Brian. "The Ancient Origins of Automation." On Gizmodo, under Artificial Intelligence, popping up for the initial Clockworks2 compiler on Mozilla's "Pocket" on their Firefox web browser 16 December 2018: <>. Originally posted by Merchant 7 December 2018, "Filed to AUTOMATON."

A highly useful brief article both scholarly and popular by a serious student[1] of the subject, tracing "automation" to "automaton" and its ancient roots in classical Greek culture — Hephaestus's fabrications in Homer's Iliad (ca. 700 B.C.E.) — and, more speculatively, earlier. Includes quotations from professional scholars in the relevant disciplines. Most speculatively and originally is "a claim made by Dr. Antone Martinho-Truswell, a zoologist at the University of Sydney" that humans "'are the beast that automates.'” In Martinho-Truswell's view, “'The bow and arrow is [sic: complex singular] probably the first example of automation [...]. When humans strung the first bow, towards the end of the Stone Age, the technology put the task of hurling a spear on to a very simple device. Once the arrow was nocked and the string pulled, the bow was autonomous, and would fire this little spear further, straighter and more consistently than human muscles ever could.” Merchant adds,

It’s a provocative argument, and, as Martinho-Truswell was quick to note, the latest in a long line of this-is-what-makes-us-different-from-the-animals distinctions. But it’s a useful one, I think, and does go some distance toward explaining humanity’s unique dominance over the global food chain as a product of a) our unique intelligence and b) the universal drive of all organisms to find ways to maximize their gains with minimal energy investment. [...] Simply put, automation is an evolutionary advantage.

Stanford classicist Adrienne Mayor cites the usual ancient Greek sources on Talos (also spelled Talus) and other automata but the quotation continues

“I have found evidence for similar ‘science fictions’ in ancient India and China, but so much has been lost or destroyed.” Mayor said. “We have the benefit of a body of classical Greco-Roman texts and artworks that managed to survive over millennia, but mythic thought experiments about techno-wonders may have arisen in many pre-modern cultures.” For instance, Ancient Hindu and Sanskrit texts describe a flying palace, known as “Vimana,” that was controlled by thought. And in the 7th century AD, the Chinese Buddhist monk Daoxuan “described a fabulous monastery defended by automatons in the form of men and animals.”