Robotics may seem like a new and futuristic word, but the concept of creating automata has been around since around 400 BC. And the robots of the ancient world demonstrated an uncanny and sometimes frighteningly prescient trend. The ancient philosopher Aristotle was in fact not only an acclaimed historian and philosopher but one of the earliest technological futurists. And his prediction when he saw some of the earliest examples of robots was similar to those made even today.
It is no coincidence that the myths of Hephaestus would eventually tell tale of servants made out of working bits of machinery so advanced that they were comparable to today’s robots. It has always been the nature of mankind to attempt to create devices that mimic the behavior and look of already living objects. And while the Hellenistic world of automata would have been for the amusement and entertainment of the rich in the ancient world, there would be predictions that such devices could one day change the face of society. It was Aristotle who predicted that the creation of automated robots would eventually solve many of society’s labor concerns and remove the blight of slavery on society. It is then perhaps more than a little coincidental that the same devices are now threatening to take away the jobs of free men and women who wish to work.
But perhaps one of the most incredible claims of ancient technological achievement comes from the Lie Zi texts depicting a mysteriously advanced artificial human. The device had apparently been developed by Yen Shih, an incredibly adept artificer and inventor. The being was said to be able to walk with deliberate and quick strides giving the uncanny impression that the metal man was human. The device was said to be capable of singing, dancing, and even schmoozing with the women of the court. This final act incensed the king, making Yen Shih smash open the contraption and reveal that the object was nothing more than a robot. Upon looking at the device’s innards all those assembled were satisfied that it had been created using simple metal, leather, glue, and lacquer.
And robotic humans were spoken of commonly in tales coming out of Rhodes. There it was said robots adorned the streets for both decoration and the amusement of visitors. The devices were said to have the ability to walk, sing, and speak respectively.
Where do these stories of ancient machine humans come from? With the majority of stories coming out from the ancient world suggesting most of civilization had no such technology, the existence of an ancient army of metal men would certainly change our perception of the ancient world. So where did all of the physical evidence go? It’s perceivable that such devices would have become the primary target of ire during revolutions against intellectuals or torn apart as abominations, but surely at least one could have survived. If the stories are not entirely apocryphal, is it possible archaeologists will one day uncover one of these devices?