Saturday, 16 May 2015

Robots & Utopia Ancient & Modern

Google have just announced that their robot cars will be driving on public roads by this summer. I will be visiting California at the end of June and do hope I can flag one down. I have always hated driving. Since I can’t multitask, driving safely precludes even lively conversation, let alone marking essays or admiring the scenery. I prefer the sipping-champagne-in-the-back-of-the-limo approach to road transport. I don’t understand why Bob Hoskins’ character in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) had to sit at the wheel when Benny the Cab was a sentient being.

Why did Benny Need to be Steered?
The ancient equivalents of robot cars are the self-steering, intelligent ships of the Phaeacian islanders in the Odyssey. Their king, Alcinous, promising to sail Odysseus home to Ithaca, explains that their ships have no helmsman. The ships use telepathy to learn the desired destination, and their knowledge of universal geography to reach it safely.[i] 
But the Phaeacian ships still needed energy to propel them. It was provided, as for any  penteconter, by fifty oarsmen. Robot cars may diminish fuel consumption, because theoretically they will lead to fewer total hours spent in cars by any given population. But the other advantages are debatable, besides freeing up drivers to sip Bollinger: they may or may not lead to fewer road traffic casualties.

Insurance is a problem. If someone is hurt by a robot car, who will be liable? The passenger? The manufacturer?  The Athenians had the answer: a special court, the Prytaneum, where inanimate objects like rocks and statues could be put on trial. The statesman Pericles and the philosopher Protagoras once spent an entire day debating whether a javelin could be held criminally responsible for the death of a youth who had run accidentally into its path. Will the Californians ever charge a Google car with Manslaughter?

Hephaestus & his Robots imagined by Fuseli
But Google’s news is still exciting. Despite the ethical issues surrounding Artificial Intelligence, I remain convinced that robots offer respite from the hard labour to which 90% of humans have usually been condemned.  Utopian robots were another Greek invention: Hephaestus is already served by robots he has made himself in the Iliad, a passage which prompted Aristotle to realise that slavery could indeed be abolished ‘if shuttles wove and plectrums played harps of their own accord’.

Lafargue & Laura Marx Busy Doing Nothing in 1870
No wonder Karl Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue, who was of mixed African, Amerindian, Jewish and French heritage, was also inspired by the robotic mechanisms of Homer and Aristotle to argue that winning the ‘right’ to sell their labour was no victory for the lower classes. He expressed this view in Le droit à la paresse (The Right to Idleness, 1883), in its time the second most widely read Marxist text after The Communist Manifesto. Re-reading it in the back of a robot car with a well-stocked fridge is now one of my dearest ambitions.

[i] See further my book Introducing the Ancient Greeks, published in the UK last month, which I am delighted to say has had almost embarrassingly stellar reviews and last week made no. 4 on the Evening Standard’s non-fiction bestseller list. Alcinous’ name means ‘Strong in Mind’ and his father’s name was ‘Nausithous’, ‘Swift in Ships.’ The story is related to the Greeks’ awareness that they had immeasurably expanded their intellectual horizons by their maritime adventures. They  strongly associated intellect (nous) and travel by ship (naus).


  1. Dear Miss Hall, though I greatly respect and am thankful for your work in Greek, I believe your comments drift into Marxist fantasy. Laborers are not released to lives of leisure and self-edification by automation; they are simply condemned to lives of unemployment, poverty, public-assistance, and idleness. There is DIGNITY for individuals in practically any sort of labor — as long as it is not too dangerous or dirty; for it enables a simple man to feed and support his family. Like the wave of automation that hit the American auto-Industry in the 1960s-to present (I am writing this in Detroit), this innovation will only put more money in the hands of corporate elites and undercut the economic potential of persons whose education never took them so far as to be capable of reading the Manifesto — much less Greek or Latin. Such folks now make a good wage driving 18 wheelers and Fed-Ex trucks. Those jobs will disappear with this technology, leaving intellectual elites, like you and I, untouched — that is, until some out of work trucker or cab-driver puts a pistol in your or my belly in order to feed his family or the drug habit he has acquired in idle-despair.

    1. Dear Walter
      Thanks for this. I completely agree tht labourers UNDER CAPITALISM are threatened by robots, and that some labour is a healthful part of life. But if we all had a minimum wage and basic needs--health, education, housing--guaranteed, under a different economic system, then more time for leisure would surely be a good thing?

  2. Under the keel nine fathom deep,
    From the land of mist and snow,
    The spirit slid: and it was he
    That made the ship to go.

    I can't remember ever seeing a book such as your Introducing the Ancient Greeks, to encapsulates so incredibly much in a single book. It is truly a work of exceptional scholarship and deep insight. I have also just started on Greek Tragedy: Suffering under the Sun.

  3. Rehan, I am so delighted you like it. I wrote that book from the heart.