Robots were born in ancient Egypt

Every civilization had inventors trying to bring life to inanimate objects.

Robots assemble vehicles in the carmaker Kia Motors Slovakia.Robots assemble vehicles in the carmaker Kia Motors Slovakia. (Source: Sme)

Martin Spano is the author of Artificial Intelligence in a Nutshell, a book that explores the mystified subject of artificial intelligence (AI) with simple, non-technical language. Spano’s passion for AI began after he watched 2001: A Space Odyssey, but he insists this ever-changing technology is not just a subject for sci-fi novels and movies; artificial intelligence is present in our everyday lives.

The story of Yan Yan

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Yan Yan was a skillful engineer. He succeeded in creating an artificial being and presented it proudly to his master. The master was amazed. The creature was moving gracefully like a real human. It could sing beautifully and dance graciously. However, after a while, the artificial being started to flirt with ladies accompanying the master at the performance. This highly displeased the master. Yan, fearing the master's rage, showed the creation's internals to prove to his master that it was indeed only an artificial being that could be turned off. Then the master began dismantling the being piece by piece. He was astonished to see how it lost its ability to move, speak and see by removing its internal parts.

This narrative looks like a usual science-fiction story. It is not unique in any sense, with one exception. It was written almost 2500 years ago and describes what allegedly happened approximately 3000 years ago. I have intentionally omitted a few details from the story, to make the similarity with modern science fiction movies even more apparent. The full name of the artisan was Yan Shi, and he presented his creation to the King Mu of Zhou dynasty in China.

Ancient robots

Since ancient times, humans have dreamt of constructing artificial beings, similarly as they thought god or gods created them. The idea of “thinking machines” was invented by ancient Egyptians 4500 years ago. They created statues that were advising the people. Nevertheless, the “thinking” and “speaking” was forfeited. It was the priests hiding inside these statues that talked.

The first mention of artificial beings in literature was in Homer's Iliad from the 8th century BC. In the famous poem, god Hephaestus created golden servants who could speak and move. He also built tripods that walked on their own.

Every civilization had inventors trying to bring life to inanimate objects. The Indian Lokapannat tales talk about an army of automated soldiers that protect the relics of Buddha. Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel is said to have brought life to a man made from clay called Golem, who defended Jews from anti-semitic attacks. Leonardo da Vinci designed a mechanical knight that could sit up, wave its arms and move its head. These robots, as we may call them from today's perspective, were called automata, because the word robot was not invented yet.

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With the onset of the industrial revolution, philosophers like Rene Descartes and Willhelm Leibnitz started to contemplate if they could represent thinking as a form of calculation. This idea was later fully developed into a physical symbol system hypothesis by scientists Allen Newell and Herbert A. Simon. This hypothesis is an underlying philosophy of all artificial intelligence research. It states that human intelligence is just the manipulation of symbols. Take the following example: Assuming all men are mortal and Newton is a man, we deduce that Newton is mortal. In this example, we used formal logic as a symbol manipulation and Newton, man, and mortality as objects. Because a machine might perform symbol manipulation, we might create a “machine that thinks.”

Modern AI

The modern history of artificial intelligence started in the middle of the 20th century. At that time, British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing made some crucial contributions to the field of computer science and artificial intelligence. He introduced the concept of a universal Turing machine, which is a model for a computer. Such a device is universal in that it can execute various programmes and solve multiple problems. In his later work, he contemplated what it meant for the machine to think, initially called imitation game, later to be known as the Turing test.

The term "artificial intelligence" was coined in 1956 by John McCarthy, Marvin Minsky and other scientists during a conference organised at Dartmouth College. This conference was a starting point for the field where its participants discussed its name, mission, and plans. They are considered grounding fathers of the discipline and its foremost researchers and trendsetters. Thanks to their optimism the governments started pouring vast amounts of money to fund their projects. However, they highly underestimated the complexity of the problem and in later years, partly due to the criticism from other renowned scientists, funding stopped, and the first period of the so-called AI winter began.

Funding resumed in the 1980s when the western governments wanted to catch up with the Japanese government with their artificial intelligence initiative. Due to the lack of computational power to process complex calculations, the funding stopped again a few years later. The 90s saw the abrupt rise of personal computers. Early years of the 21st-century saw the start of the new era of connectivity. The internet started to interconnect more and more electronic devices. These connected devices, together with online services like social networks, started generating vast amounts of “big data”. Synergic effects of advances in raw computer power, large data sets, and theoretical breakthroughs enabled unprecedented advances in artificial intelligence and its use in commercial products.

The Slovak Spectator will publish more extracts from Spano’s book in the coming weeks.

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