• Feb 8, 2018

Man-Made Marvels, Ancient Anxieties

By Laura A. Brueckner

The idea of artificial intelligence has a long history in Western culture. Stories of “living statues” and other types of man-made marvels appear in classical myth, Renaissance theatre and history, Victorian novels, blockbuster films, and video games.

The inventors of these synthetic beings create them to fulfill a range of purposes. In ancient tales, they are often warriors; in the Renaissance, the products of arcane knowledge. Industrialization added stories of robot servants and laborers to the mix, followed by information-age dreams of companions to ameliorate modern isolation—like the Primes in tonight’s play.

In classical Greek myth, for instance, there was Talos. Created by Hephaestus, god of craft and technology, Talos was a giant automaton made of bronze that guarded the island of Crete. It used deadly force to defend the kingdom—in one instance, it heated itself red-hot in a fire and then hugged a shipload of invaders to death.

Renaissance England gave us the “Brazen Head.” In Robert Greene’s Elizabethan comedy, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, a necromancer crafts a human-like head out of brass and learns to animate it with the help of “Piromanticke spels,” so that it can disclose to its creator the secrets of the universe.

The legend of the Golem of Prague came from the late 1500s as well. Rabbi Judah Loew of Prague hoped to defend the city’s Jewish community from violent persecution by creating a golem. He shaped its body out of clay, then gave it breath by placing a piece of paper inscribed with holy letters into its mouth. The golem fought off the oppressors, but then ran rampant and became a danger to other people as well. Rabbi Loew removed the holy letters, de-animating the golem.

Prague again—in 1920, Czech playwright Karel Čapek premiered Rossum’s Universal Robots, in which a scientist discovers how to make partially-organic “robots” (first use of the word!). His nephew begins to manufacture them for profit, selling them to toil in factories worldwide. The robots soon rebel and exterminate the entire human race, except for one lonely engineer.

Čapek’s play begins a theme that later blockbuster sci-fi films will embrace: the dramatic and deadly moment of machine rebellion. In Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the HAL-9000 computer running a space ship suffers a kind of logic breakdown and begins to strategically kill off its human crew. The Terminator film franchise, launched in 1984, shows an A.I. system becoming self-aware and systematically slaughtering all humans, which it decides are a “security threat.” In the 2015 film, Ex Machina, a “female” A.I. manipulates the affections of a man brought to a secret research facility to converse with “her”; escaping, she traps him inside, leaving him to die.

In fact, most modern narratives about artificial intelligence share this major plot point—the moment when the creation defies its creator. This pivot appears in so many A.I. stories that it may reveal the central anxiety driving us to create narratives about artificial intelligence: the limitations of human intelligence.

Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime is much subtler in its exploration of this theme. There is no concern that the Primes will physically harm the human characters; there is no “aha” moment where the Primes gain absolute sentience and seize control. At the same time, the play declines to portray humans as being fully in control, resists offering a conclusion that reads as a human victory. Does it represent a new phase of evolution for our ancient anxieties?