The Ancient Imagination Behind China’s AI Ambition

Essay by Jennifer Bourne: “Artificial intelligence is a modern technology, but in both the West and the East the aspiration for inventing autonomous tools and robots that can think for themselves can be traced back to ancient times. Adrienne Mayor, a historian of science at Stanford, has noted that in ancient Greece, there were myths about tools that helped men become godlike, such as the legendary inventor Daedalus who fabricated wings for himself and his son to escape from prison. 

Similar myths and stories are to be found in China too, where aspirations for advanced robots also appeared thousands of years ago. In a tale that appears in the Taoist text “Liezi,” which is attributed to the 5th-century BCE philosopher Lie Yukou, a technician named Yan Shi made a humanlike robot that could dance and sing and even dared to flirt with the king’s concubines. The king, angry and fearful, ordered the robot to be dismantled. 

In the Three Kingdoms era (220-280), a politician named Zhuge Liang invented a “fully automated” wheelbarrow (the translation from the Chinese is roughly “wooden ox”) that could reportedly carry over 200 pounds of food supplies and walk 20 miles a day without needing any fuel or manpower. Later, Zhang Zhuo, a scholar who died around 730, wrote a story about a robot that was obedient, polite and could pour wine for guests at parties. In the same collection of stories, Zhang also mentioned a robot monk who wandered around town, asking for alms and bowing to those who gave him something. And in “Extensive Records of the Taiping Era,” published in 978, a technician called Ma Daifeng is said to have invented a robot maid who did household chores for her master.

Imaginative narratives of intelligent robots or autonomous tools can be found throughout agriculture-dominated ancient China, where wealth flowed from a higher capacity for labor. So, stories reflect ancient people’s desire to get more artificial hands on deck, and to free themselves from intensive farm work….(More)”.