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Apocalyptic AIVisions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality$

Robert Geraci

Print publication date: 2010

Print ISBN-13: 9780195393026

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195393026.001.0001

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(p.147) Appendix One The Rise of the Robots

(p.147) Appendix One The Rise of the Robots

Apocalyptic AI
Oxford University Press


Late in the twentieth century, great pains were often taken to distance religion and science. Occasionally, this was done to protect the two from one another, preserving them each within some domain of competence so that everyday people could be both scientifically literate and religiously faithful. At other times, this segregation served more antagonistic purposes: to elevate one domain at the expense of the other, which becomes either the realm of the ignorant or the realm of the damned, depending upon whether science or religion is “on top.”

In the history of intelligent robots, a history which goes back well before the building of any digital robots (which was impossible until the mid-twentieth century), both religion and science play key roles. Intelligent machines have precursors in science and religion and, as I discussed in chapter two, the goals for engineering mechanical people were not overly different from the goals that led to alchemical creation. To understand robots, we must understand how the history of religion and the history of science have twined around one another, quite often working toward the same ends and quite often influencing one another’s methods and objectives. Such knowledge would avail one little should one wish to be a roboticist, of course, but it is quite invaluable in order to understand what robotics is all about. While most of this book has evaluated Apocalyptic AI synchronically, that is, in its historical moment, this appendix offers a diachronic history of artificial humanoids in religion and science to better contextualize Apocalyptic AI.

When the robots come home to roost

Robots are all around us, and they are getting closer. Robots have already entered mainstream culture as cleaning devices, entertainment, and educational tools. (p.148) Over 2 million iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaners sold between 2002 and 2006, with other companies fast joining the market. Robots can vacuum and mop floors and even mow your lawn. Before Roomba became a household word, however, the phrase “robot wars” was already in common usage. Combat between remote-controlled personal robots became a “sport” popularized on television by the shows Robot Wars and Battlebots.1 These shows, in which participants were equal measure engineers, artists, geeks, and entrepreneurs, made robots exciting and available to the mainstream populace, which gobbled up reproduction toys and avidly watched as robots flipped, hammered, and sawed one another to pieces in the ring. ROBO-ONE, in which humanoid robots perform tasks (e.g., running and stair-climbing) and box one another, is a less destructive newcomer to the world of robot combat. Other robot contests have grown in popularity as well. The Trinity College Fire Fighting Home Robot Contest allows entrants from around the United States to compete at navigating a maze and snuffing out a candle while other educational competitions like the FIRST LEGO League2 introduce students to robotic technology in an atmosphere that encourages teamwork and inventiveness. Robots also compete in soccer games (RoboCup), with the ultimate goal of building humanoid robots that can beat the world championship human team by the year 2050.

Even a cursory glance at industry, military, literature, and even home economics shows the increasing presence of robots in American life. Although the word “robot” was not coined until 1927 and nothing resembling today’s robots existed until William Grey Walter built his autonomous tortoises in the late 1940s, intelligent robots seem like inevitable additions to twenty-first-century life. Walter’s tortoises could seek or avoid light and they could return to their charging stations when their batteries were low. These early robots helped cyberneticists and computer scientists of the mid-century imagine what life could be like with greater computing power and more sophisticated sensing apparatuses. Robots will fight our wars, guard our homes, assist our work, and even play with our children. According to some futurists, they will also replace us as Earth’s dominant life form. When Isaac Asimov popularized robotic science fiction in the 1950s, a nanny robot was the stuff of dreams. But in the early twenty-first century, robots that recognize people, interact with them, and help solve math problems are the stuff of reality. Not yet widespread, such companions will soon find homes across the world as prices decline and capabilities expand.

Mystics and engineers

The rise of robots, enabled by modern computing, has historical precedent in both scientific and religious communities. From mythology to mechanics, robots have antecedents from the ancient world and the early modern period. Mechanical (p.149) engineers built automata, machines that came alive through springs, water flow, weighted strings, and even steam; these machines performed various tasks, from walking around to playing musical instruments. At the same time, mystics saw a chance to come closer to God through the creation of a living creature by magical means.3

Ancient engineers were surprisingly effective at providing movement and sound in their automata. As early as the middle of the first century CE, Hero of Alexandria built automata that could move around a stage as dramatic props. In a similar feat of genius, the early fourth-century BCE mathematician and philosopher Archytas built a wooden bird that moved along a wire by expelling steam. Greek myths idolized Daedalus for his automata, which resembled those of the god Hephaestus. Talking heads and moving statues were used to provide oracular pronouncements in Greek, Egyptian, and Babylonian temples. Many ancient cultures, including that of the Egyptians, had no difficulty in ascribing a kind of life to their religious statues (Cohen 1966, 20); so much the better if the statue could move! In the Far East and India, too, statues were made to move as though alive (ibid., 23). The desire to build automata was powerful in the ancient world, as engineers and priests—who have been one and the same from time to time—worked together to build the objects that would engage humanity and represent the gods.

The rise of the mechanical arts in early modern Europe and Japan enabled the construction of more sophisticated automata: mechanical animals and people that could execute preset behaviors. As early as 1495, Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519 CE) designed an automaton in knight’s armor, which could sit up and move its arms and neck. No one knows whether or not Leonardo ever built a full model but a modern reproduction demonstrated the soundness of his design.4 In the eighteenth century, inventors traveled Europe to demonstrate their automata.5 Jacques de Vaucanson (1709–1782 CE), for example, exhibited a duck that could eat, defecate, and flap its wings. Among the most famous automata were the works of Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721–1790 CE) and his sons, which were built to raise the prestige of their watch-making business. Their machines included The Musician, a female figure who played a pianolike instrument while “breathing” and moving her head and eyes, and The Writer, which was composed of over 6,000 pieces and had a form of programmable memory, from which it would output information through pen and ink. Some of Jaquet-Droz’s most complex pieces can still be seen at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Just as legends of Daedalus’s creations show off his brilliance, the amazing automata of early modern Europe boosted the prestige of their makers. Jaquet-Droz and his sons, for example, used their inventions to boost sales in their clock- and watch-making business.

Similarly famous, though less impressive than the automata, was the Automaton Chess-Player, a chess-playing machine built in 1770 by the Hungarian baron (p.150) Wolfgang von Kempelen (1734–1804 CE). Known today as The Turk, the chess player was a humanoid sitting at a cabinet in which various gears were housed. Though impressive in its victories over human players, The Turk was revealed to be a hoax. As the cabinet doors were opened to reveal the gears inside, a small human person could move back and forth, allowing unobstructed viewing through the machine but only through one half of the machine at a time. By opening only half of the machine to viewing and then closing it off before revealing the other, von Kempelen allowed his assistant to evade detection. It seems obvious that von Kempelen’s hoax was designed to make him the “talk of the town,” not just to see if it would work. Von Kempelen and the automata makers of early modern Europe, then, demonstrated early on that the construction of artificial humanoids connects to social and financial power, as would later be the case in Apocalyptic AI (see chapter two).

Around the same time, Japanese artisans manufactured automata called karakuri, which were used in theaters, religious festivals, and at home. The most famous of the karakuri are the tea-serving dolls, which use baleen springs to roll forward and pour a cup of tea before reversing direction and rolling away once the empty cup has been replaced. In Japan, masters and their apprentices zealously guarded the techniques of karakuri manufacture until Hosokawa Hanzo Yorinao published Karakuri-zui (“Illustrated Compilation of Mechanism-art”) in 1798 (Karakuriya 2007).

Karakuri may descend from Leonardo da Vinci’s pioneering automata (Rosheim 2006, 35–36). Certainly, the introduction of Western clocks affected the development of karakuri (Hornyak 2006, 20). Mark Rosheim argues that several of Leonardo’s manuscripts (the Madrid Codices) were kept in Spain and could have passed from there to Japan in the hands of Jesuit missionaries, who used technical objects like clocks and novel devices as a way of winning favors in foreign countries. For example, one of Jacquet-Droz’s automata ended up in China. The Japanese tea-serving doll closely resembles the sixteenth-century European Monk automaton, which also moves forward via a clockwork design. As of yet, however, no definite link has been demonstrated between da Vinci’s work and karakuri.

Karakuri are intimately connected to Japan’s contemporary robotic culture. The word “karakuri” refers to intricately designed machines of various natures, including animate dolls but also chests with secret compartments and, more importantly, complex puppet show devices. These latter were frequently used in Japanese religious ceremonies and this religious use has advanced the Japanese acceptance of robots in the twentieth century (Hornyak 2006, 82). The religious rites involving karakuri presage the contemporary world, in which it is not uncommon for the Japanese to ascribe sanctity to robots (see Geraci 2006; Hornyak 2006).

The Western goal of building a functional humanoid also received, no doubt, some of its impetus from religion. Myths of creating live humanoids abound in (p.151) Western cultures, from Pygmalion and Daedalus to the Jewish Golem and the homunculi of Renaissance alchemy. In ancient Egypt, statues were given movable mouths so that priests could provide visitors with, seemingly, divine commands. The practice of fashioning humanoid statues to offer divine counsel spread beyond Egypt by the first century CE and continued throughout medieval Europe (Dodds 1947, 63–64). Unlike those of ancient Egypt, medieval European statues were not mechanical but were still presumed to possess the spirit of a god or demon who could be interrogated and could provide answers to one’s questions (ibid., 64).

Although statues might have spirits within them, they remain in a very important sense, statues. Creating a real humanoid, a homunculus, was a far more enticing task in medieval Europe, which marks a significant difference between Japanese karakuri and European automata. No tradition connects karakuri to the creation of a living being the way in Europe automata designs appear historically alongside alchemical efforts to create a homunculus and the Jewish mystical creation of Golems.6

The homunculus came to Europe—just as so much other philosophical and scientific knowledge did—through Islamic culture. Having translated Greek texts into Arabic, Muslims rescued much of the ancients’ knowledge and preserved it for future centuries while also advancing it in important ways. Prior to Ferdinand and Isabella’s unification of Spain, the mixture of Jews, Christians, and Muslims there created an unprecedented realm of cultural mixing, through which educated Europeans gained access to both Greek and Islamic science.7 Europe, hoping to “recover its own antiquity” found access to ancient sources through Arabic translation and found additional benefit in the Islamic learning that had followed upon the Muslim translation of ancient Greek authorities (Iqbal 2002, 179–200).

Medieval Arabs were very interested in artificial human life, in which they were influenced by their translations of ancient Greek manuscripts.8 Many medieval Muslims even considered Hermes9 to be one of God’s prophets, bringing alchemical knowledge rather than a written revelation (Stapleton, Lewis, and Sherwood 1949, 69). Greek alchemy came to Islamic attention after many works were translated under the reign of the Arab prince Khalid ibn Yazid (d. 704 CE). Khalid was an eager student of alchemy, hoping to transmute base metals into gold; after studying with the Christian alchemist Morienus, he wrote several poems to “enshrine his knowledge” (Holmyard 1957, 65).10 Khalid was instrumental in the rise of alchemical knowledge in medieval Islam but it was in subsequent centuries that such knowledge flourished.

The most influential figure in Islamic alchemy was Jābir ibn Hayyān (c. 721–c. 815 CE, who has been called both the “father of chemistry,” for his experimental methods and work on acids, distillations, and crystallizations, and the “Paracelsus of the Arabs” because of his extensive work in the creation of a homunculus.11 Many of the works attributed to Jābir were probably written by his followers, but (p.152) remain under his name as the “school of Jābir.” Indeed, some question remains as to whether Jābir lived at all and doubt has been cast on the authenticity of his writings (Haq 1994, 3–32). Syed Noumanul Haq has, however, done much to authenticate Jābir’s historical role (ibid.) and this position has been well received (Iqbal 2002, 25–26). This is not the place, however, to debate the authenticity of Jābir’s biography. As I wish to trace only a small line around Islamic alchemy, I shall assume that Jābir was a real historical person, as argued by Holmyard, Haq, and others.12

Jābir believed that the four qualities of hot, cold, moist, and dry composed all entities and could be manipulated in their balance to create life. Jābir did not think of the four qualities as mere abstractions but considered them independent entities that in turn composed the elements air, water, earth, and fire when they combined with one another and with substance (Haq 1994, 58–59). For example, air is hot-moist while earth is cold-dry. Manipulation of such balances enables the alchemist to transform one metal into another and even transform inanimate objects into living things, as described, for example, in various sections of Jābir’s large treatise, the Kutub al Mawāzīn (Book of Balances). Takwin, the creation of artificial life, is the culmination of the same processes that can be used to create various kinds of minerals (O’Connor 1994, 57, 79).

Jābir believed that, through the manipulation of balances, artificial life could be created. In the Book of Stones, he attributes this to Balīnās, known to us as Apollonius of Tyana.13 Despite this reference to ancient authority, however, it was Jābir and the Arabic alchemists who extended their study beyond minerals to include plants and animals (Haq 1994, 228). The creation of artificial life was, for Jābir, the highest act of humankind, the ultimate manner of imitating the divine creator of the universe (Berman 1961, 55; O’Connor 1994, 76), though such imitation could never equal the creative powers of God (O’Connor 1994, 89). Jābir’s method was quintessentially Islamic: it relies upon the Qur’anic theme of balance in the universe and “celebrates and builds upon the central concept of Islam,” that is, God’s unity (Iqbal 2002, 27).

Based on his theory of balances, Jābir believed that different materials could be used in the creation of different kinds of animals. Sea water, for example, could be used for tortoises, crayfish, scorpions, poisonous serpents, and lions while rainwater could be used to manufacture elephants, camels, water buffalo, cattle, and donkeys.

The different fluids (fresh, salt, or distilled waters) required are according to the different kinds of creatures being created. The text provides a parallel of evolutionary creation to artificial creation from fresh or salt water. It discusses the categories of living creatures capable of being artificially generated according to how they are nurtured. Their nurture (fresh, salty, distilled) corresponds to their natures (domestic, (p.153) wild, fabulous, and human), physiognomies (personable, ponderous, predatory) and modes of locomotion (bipedal, quadrapedal, winged) (O’Connor 1994, 81).

Similarly, Jābir believed that various recipes and even laboratory apparatuses could bring about different outcomes in the production of humanoids. In the Kitāb al tajmī (Book of Gathering), which is also part of the Book of Balances, Jābir describes ways of creating human beings and argues that manipulation of the instrument allows such productions as a being with the torso of a girl but the face of a man (quoted in O’Connor 1994, 155). Jābir’s theory of the apparatus probably traces from Galen’s emphasis upon the environment’s effect upon an animal. According to Galen and his followers, you could produce a different animal by placing an infant in one environment or another, such as creating land or sea turtles by raising the turtle in water or ashore (Kruk 1990, 271–72). Balance of materials and balance of apparatus (i.e., it should be proportional to that which one hopes to create) is crucial to Jābir’s alchemical search for life.

Islamic alchemy did not die with Jābir but instead flourished for centuries, eventually helping bring about the rise of European alchemy. The school of Jābir continued to publish books, as did other Islamic alchemists, some of whom published in their own names and some of whom published pseudonymously. While these subsequent works drew upon Jābir, they added significantly to his legacy. Among the more interesting pseudonymous works is The Book of the Cow, which was attributed to Plato but is clearly of medieval Islamic provenance. In addition to recipes for creating bees out of a putrefying cow and vice versa, The Book of the Cow also offers a recipe for a homunculus.14 A homunculus is an artificial humanoid manufactured through alchemical recipes, generally as a means for acquiring magical powers or the answers to difficult questions. The homunculus of The Book of the Cow has superhuman powers; it is thus a significant departure from Jābir’s homunculus, which seems more or less identical with an actual human being.15

In The Book of the Cow,16 the homunculus is formed by mixing the “stone of the sun” with the maker’s “water” (presumably sperm). This mixture is then used to plug the vulva of a cow or a ewe, which has been cleansed with medicine and the blood of a ewe or a cow (the opposite animal from the one whose corpse is to carry the homunculus to term). The animal is placed in a dark house and fed a pound of blood from the opposite animal each week. One then grinds sunstone, sulfur, magnet, and green tutia, mixes them with willow sap, dries it all in the shadows and then waits until the cow or ewe gives birth. The creature that emerges should be placed in the powder in order to give the creature human form. After three days it will grow hungry and should be fed blood from its mother for seven days. The resulting creature will provide its maker a number of powers, from changing the progress of the moon to, if it is prepared properly and vivisected to form an ointment for the feet, walking on water.

(p.154) Medieval philosophers and alchemists had significant reason to believe that they could create homunculi. The reigning biology for both Arabs and Europeans, inherited from Aristotle and the Greeks, included theories of spontaneous generation and the formative power of sperm (Kruk 1990; Newman 2004, 166). According to Greek theories of spontaneous generation, the right materials mixed in the right amounts in the right conditions would give rise to life automatically. It remained only to determine the correct recipe for the artificial man. Recipes for homunculi inevitably include human sperm because the Greeks believed that males provide the life force for each new person. Following the Greeks, medieval Europeans believed that women were receptacles for male sperm, which did the “real” work in creating a new human being through its life-giving “pneuma”17 (Newman 2004, 166). Animal blood (as in The Book of the Cow) replaces the female menstrual blood, from which, in Greek thought, the body derives (Cohen 1966, 44). Given theories of spontaneous generation and formative sperm, a homunculus seemed quite possible: as long as the alchemist assembled the necessary ingredients properly, the spirit included in the sperm should infuse the creature with life.

In Catholic Europe, creation of a homunculus often verged upon idolatry. Arnald of Villanova18 (late thirteenth century) allegedly killed his homunculus before its completion because he feared it would acquire a rational soul, which he believed would be a mortal sin (Newman 2004, 7). Alonso Tostado, meanwhile, likened the creation of a homunculus to the demonic begetting of giants through succubae and incubi (ibid., 193–95). In the seventeenth century, influential Catholics like Marin Mersenne and Athanasius Kircher both reviled alchemical homunculi and “triumphantly broadcast Alonso Tostado’s story of Arnald” (ibid., 222). In one legend, Thomas Aquinas destroyed Albertus Magnus’s mechanical servant as a tool of the devil. No one could be certain whether the creation of a homunculus usurped divine powers and led to the downfall of Christendom or simply glorified God through the operation and manipulation of natural laws—but the hubris implied in replicating God’s creation and the potential to violate the commandment against idols seemed all too obvious for most medieval theologians.

Despite its theological problems, the creation of a homunculus eventually became the highest expression of human ingenuity for many European Christians, a status that it retains today in robotics and AI (despite occasional theological assaults of “playing God” or accusations of soullessness in machines). It was Phillip von Hohenheim (1493–1541 CE), known as Paracelsus, who made the homunculus more important than the alchemical synthesis of gold (Newman 2004, 165) and likened the alchemist to a demiurge, or lesser god (ibid., 199).19 Like Jābir before him, Paracelsus was influential in the study of chemistry, particularly for making it a necessary part of medical practice (Holmyard 1957, 173–74). Paracelsus rejected the inherited medical traditions of Galen and Avicenna and (p.155) offended almost the entirety of his contemporaries in the medical profession, all of which was, perhaps, exacerbated by his reputation for prodigious medical cures (see ibid., 166–68). Paracelsus’s claim that the creation of a homunculus is superior to the creation of gold is demonstrated in Johann Valentin Andreae’s anonymous Chymical Wedding of Christian Rosencreutz (1616 CE), in which a process nearly identical to that which would supposedly produce a philosopher’s stone (used to create gold) actually resurrects a dead king and queen as homunculi (Newman 2004, 234).20

According to Paracelsus and other alchemists, the homunculus could be formed from a man’s sperm21 and would subsequently acquire impressive powers. A homunculus, because it is a purified form of humanity (i.e., produced without a woman), should have access to powers and knowledge that human beings do not. This follows from experiments in which alchemists attempted to produce the rarified essence of plants or animals. By burning plants and flowers, for example, and using the ashes in an alchemical reaction, one alchemist claimed to have resuscitated them as shadowy forms that were the purified essence of their originals, “devoid of crass materiality” (Newman 2004, 228). If the spectral plant is superior to its original, how much more so the homunculus than its fallen creator?22 Its supernatural powers indicate that the homunculus of Paracelsus and his followers owes much to the Neo-Platonic, post–Jābir Islamic homunculus.

Alongside the homunculus traditions of Christian Europe, Jewish sources claimed that a sufficiently knowledgeable rabbi could produce a living humanoid called a Golem.23 From its earliest years, Golem creation benefited from religious syncretism. Early in Jewish thought, Neoplatonic, Aristotelian, and astrological ideas influenced the Golem (Idel 1988, 16) and in the medieval period the intermixture of cultures contributed to Jewish faith that artificial humanoids could be powerful servants and allies.

As with the rest of Europe, Jewish traditions connected to ancient Greek thought but Jews sought to outdo the accomplished ancients. During the Renaissance, Jewish authors described the Golem in order to demonstrate the superiority of their ancient wisdom over that of the Greeks (Idel 1990, 165, 183–84). For Jews, the creation of a Golem has been accepted and encouraged, with little of the ambivalence visible in the homunculus legends of Christian Europe (Sherwin 1985, 424). It stands as synecdoche for the powers of human creation; it is the representative of the highest aspiration of humankind (Singer 1988). The Golem, a creature of mud and clay, is manufactured primarily through mystical manipulation of the Hebrew alphabet, rather than through alchemical combinations.25 Jews have long believed that Hebrew is a different, more powerful language. Hebrew is the language of God and the language of creation; thus through proper manipulation of the language the mystic can create whole new worlds, particularly through the use of the ancient Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation).26

(p.156) As a consequence of their social segregation and oppression, early modern Jews maintained a healthy legacy of the Golem. Medieval and early modern authorities generally relegated the Jews to ghettos outside major cities, where the Jews were unable to occupy certain professions and were frequently subject to oppression from their Christian neighbors. As a result of this legacy—and its continuing relevance after the failure of the Jewish Enlightenment to establish an accepted Jewish presence in Europe—hope for magical aid against oppression is quite understandable.

The earliest clear Golem story comes from the Talmud (fourth to sixth centuries CE) but the Golem it describes, unlike the homunculi of medieval Islamic and Christian culture, is inferior to a human being and without significant powers. In Sanhedrin 65b of the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Abba ben Rav Hamma (299–353 CE, known as Rava) creates a Golem in order to demonstrate his close relationship with God.27 It was subsequently destroyed by Rabbi Zeira who noticed it was mute and ordered it, “return to your dust.” Had Rava been perfect, it is said, then his Golem would have been the equal of a human being. Though his creation demonstrates his power and piety, it simultaneously shows his imperfections (Idel 1988, 17). According to Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac, known to Jews as Rashi (1040–1105 CE), the creation of a Golem shows that the creator has mastered the Sefer Yetzirah and its mystical permutations of the Hebrew language but its muteness reveals Rava’s limitations. Though the creators of Golems are not perfect, and thus neither are their Golems, only truly powerful and praiseworthy men could produce one at all. Golems were attributed to honored Jews who were believed to have attained substantial spiritual mastery (Goldsmith 1981, 36–37; Idel 1990; Sherwin 2004, 14).28

The most widespread Golem tradition is the seventeenth-century legend of Rabbi Yehudah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague29 (c. 1525–1609 CE), whose Golem myths clearly function as markers of prestige. Although an examination of Rabbi Loew’s writings provides little or no explanation as to why the Golem was attributed to him and the first written attribution did not come until 1841,30 he has been associated Golem creation since the eighteenth or nineteenth century and folkloric accounts have spread wide (Idel 1990, 251–52).31 The attribution of Golem manufacture to Rabbi Loew is clearly a response to his extraordinary achievements; he was a “supernova in the bright constellation of sixteenth-century Jewish scholars and communal leaders” (Sherwin 2004, 18). The stories of Rabbi Loew were published in the early twentieth century by Yudl Rosenberg and Chayim Bloch, who evidently relied upon Rosenberg in his retelling. Although Rosenberg supposedly acquired Golem material that came straight from Rabbi Yitzchak ben Shimshon Katz, Rabbi Loew’s son-in-law and assistant in the Golem’s manufacture, this claim is almost universally rejected.32 Some of the Golem myths presented by Rosenberg were probably original to him, as they relate to the specific problems of (p.157) early twentieth-century Jewry, particularly the problem of the blood libel, which arose at various points in medieval Europe but was not a problem during Loew’s own time (Goldsmith 1981, 38–41).33 Indeed, the time in which Rabbi Loew was chief Rabbi in Prague was known as the “Golden Age” of Czech Jewry (Kieval 1997, 5). Rabbi Loew, despite living in a peaceful time for Jews, became the hero for Jews in worse circumstances because of the profound respect that eastern European Jews had for him. Just as building automata enhanced the prestige of clock makers and creating a homunculus vouched for Paracelsus’s medical knowledge, the attribution of a Golem to Rabbi Loew’s legend acts as an honorific.

Because Golem folklore has spread throughout modern Jewish life, stories about the Golems of Rabbi Elijah of Chelm34 and Rabbi Loew occasionally conflict with one another. Different stories relate different ways of raising a Golem to life (e.g., a parchment in its mouth, an inscription on its forehead, ritual circumambulation by three learned men, an amulet, etc.). There are also different traditions about what the Golem did and different endings to its life and that of the rabbi. For example, in some stories, Rabbi Loew was forced to stop his Golem during a rampage and the Golem collapsed upon him, killing him.35 In other stories, the Golems can be de-animated at little cost to the rabbi.

As retold by Rosenberg and Bloch, Rabbi Loew’s Golem had many magical powers to accompany its superhuman strength. It was immune to illness and carried an amulet (given by Rabbi Loew) that allowed it to turn invisible. It could see the souls of the dead and speak with them; it even brought one dead spirit to a trial, where, from behind a curtain, the spirit gave evidence that saved the Jews from yet another blood libel. The Golem had the inspiration to help Rabbi Loew arrange certain letters given to him in a dream so that the rabbi could interpret them, which he had been powerless to do before the Golem’s intervention. Even though the Golem had these powers, which it used to protect the Jews, it was unquestionably inferior to human beings, as it did not possess the specific “kind” of soul that a human being possesses (ruah).

The Golem’s magical powers (as understood in nineteenth- and twentieth-century folklore) place it firmly in the tradition of artificial humanoids but its inferiority to human beings marks an important distinction. The Islamic and European alchemical homunculi could speak as human beings and had prophetic powers. The Golem, on the other hand, is mute and ignorant; it is greatly inferior to its makers (Newman 2004, 186). According to some medieval Jews, a truly pious individual could make a Golem equal to a human being but this would require a state of perfect mystical union with God (Idel 1990, 106–7, 216, 225–26). Rabbi Isaac ben Samuel of Acre (thirteenth to fourteenth centuries CE) cited Jeremiah and Ben Sira, along with a few others, as examples of such perfection but other Jewish sources, however, deny that a Golem could ever equal a human being.36

(p.158) In the twentieth century, the awkward and incomplete Golem of Rabbi Loew and Rabbi Elijah has been a deeply influential trope for modern technology. Gustav Meyrink’s novel Der Golem (1915), and Paul Wegener’s 1921 movie of the same name brought the Golem back into gentile culture, where it has remained influential, playing a role in comic books and popular novels.37For example, the Golem myth has appeared in poems and stories by Jorges Luis Borges and in Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize–winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (2001) and has played a role in the television shows The X-Files and The Simpsons and in many comic books, including Tales of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. More relevant to this study, advances in twentieth-century science have also incorporated the Golem as a spiritual forebear. Fear of and fascination with a biotechnological future led Byron Sherwin to connect genetically enhanced human beings and robotics with the Golem (Sherwin 2004, 2007) and the Golem myth has had obvious parallels with the rise of computers, artificial intelligence, and robotics.

Just a few years after the first electronic computers became available, they were linked to Golems. The seminal cybernetic theorist Norbert Wiener compared computers to Golems in his classic God and Golem, Inc. (1964) as did Gershom Scholem, a Jewish philosopher and historian, in an essay shortly thereafter (Scholem 1971). For both authors, the Golem story provides twentieth-century science with a cautionary tale. The destructive powers of computers are no less than those of the mythical Golem yet many uncritical observers saw—and continue to see—nothing but paradise in the computerized world of the future. Just as Rava’s Golem could not speak because of Rava’s own imperfections, the robots we build will likely reflect both the good and the bad within us.

Building conscious machines could be a religious task, just as the fabrication of Golems was in the past. The Lutheran theologian Anne Foerst and the computer scientist Hugo de Garis both—in wildly disparate ways—believe that building robots is a religious obligation. For Foerst, creating robots is directly akin to the creation of Golems: it is worship of God (Foerst 2004, 35–36) and provides us with new partners in God’s creation (Foerst 1998).38 De Garis argues, however, that building machines that are superior to human beings—not partners for them—is a religious act (de Garis 2005, 105); this moral obligation exists even though those machines (in his account) will almost certainly replace humankind, perhaps through war (ibid., 12). In the theories of Foerst and de Garis, we see how robots can be both objects for and objects of worship. Foerst allows robots personhood and equality; de Garis elevates them to the realm of the divine.

Artificial humanoids have a long and continuous history through both religion and science. Ancient statues and myths, medieval and early modern Golems and homunculi, even the fervently anticipated robots of tomorrow all intertwine with religious hopes and with engineering progress. Our desire to build intelligent (p.159) machines cannot be taken out of either its scientific or its religious context without intellectual impoverishment. The intelligent robots of pop science are the latest installment in a tradition of trying to build artificial people. Though we might be tempted to be surprised at the connection between religion, science, and technology through robotics, there is plenty of historical precedent for it. (p.160)


(1) . Brad Stone traces the history of robot combat in Gearheads: The Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports (B. Stone 2003).

(2) . FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) was started by the award-winning inventor Dean Kamen in 1989 to help inspire young people to pursue careers in science and technology. In addition to the Lego League, FIRST sponsors the FIRST Vex Challenge and the FIRST Robotic Competition, both of which are robot competitions open to students in junior high and high school.

(3) . For overlapping histories of automata (both scientific and religious), see Cohen (1966), Levy (2006), and Rosheim (1994).

(4) . The roboticist Mark Rosheim has written an excellent work on Leonardo’s designs, studying them and attempting to build modern replicas (Rosheim 2006).

(5) . In a brief but fascinating section of his book Mimesis and Alterity, Michael Taussig ties early modern automata to the practice of associating the powers of mimesis with primitivism (Taussig 1993, 213–20). As he notes, the one thing so rarely represented in eighteenth-century European automata was the one thing that was both all around the machines and instrumental in manufacturing them: the white male. Animals, children, women, and, especially, dark-skinned people were the common subjects of the automata.

(6) . The ideological connection between automata and homunculi existed at the time of their popularity. Jonathan Edwards, in his Demonstration of the Existence and Providence of God, connects the two in the year 1696 (Edwards quoted in Newman 2004, 226). As Edwards was neither an automaton engineer nor an alchemist, it seems likely that the ideological connection between the two precedes him and he borrows from preexisting traditions.

(7) . For example, a ninth-century bishop of Cordoba complained that while not one in 1,000 Christians there could write a decent letter in Latin, they could read and write in Arabic (Holmyard 1957, 63). Ferdinand and Isabella, who united Spain, expelled both Muslims and Jews from the nation in 1492, ending the medieval world’s most pluralistic community.

(8) . Syriac-speaking Christians aided in the seventh- and eighth-century translation of the Greek materials (Holmyard 1957, 63, 67).

(9) . Muslims identified Hermes with the Qur’anic individual Idris (Stapleton, Lewis, and Sherwood 1949, 69). Hermes, often called Hermes Trismegistus (“thrice-great”), was highly regarded in alchemical circles throughout the Western world.

(10) . The authenticity of some or all of Khalid’s poems has been disputed (see Holmyard 1957, 65–66).

(11) . Jābir, for his contributions to both chemistry and alchemy, marks yet another example of how religious and scientific goals can go hand in hand. His influence upon both chemistry and alchemy throughout the Western world cannot be overstated; his work directed the course of both fields in western Europe thanks to his detailed descriptions of methods and apparatuses, especially in Kitāb al-Tajmī (Book of Concentration). The concept of takwin (described below) is an example of how effectively medieval thinkers could integrate religion and science, especially in the search for artificial humanoids. European “recipes” for artificial life were attached to and methodologically similar to Jābir’s chemical recipes. At the same time, however, there was a distinctly religious aspect to the process. Jābir’s alchemical creation of life depended upon traditional Islamic themes and traditional ritual practices, especially those of liturgical prayer, supplicatory prayer, and the invocation/remembrance of the divine name (O’Connor 1994, 90).

(12) . For a brief summary of Jābir’s life, see Holmyard 1928, vii–ix and Holmyard 1957, 68–71. We are told that Jābir’s father was a pharmacist, which may help explain his interest in alchemical mixtures, but he did not know his father, who was executed for political reasons shortly after Jābir’s birth. As a young man, Jābir may have studied with the sixth Shī’ī imam, Ja’far al-Sadiq, whose work was likely crucial to the occult turn in Jābir’s work.

(13) . Apollonius of Tyana (first century CE) was a Greek Neo-Pythagorean teacher and miracle worker, known primarily through Flavius Philostratus’s Life of Apollonius of Tyana (third century CE), wherein he is depicted as a “divine man.”

(14) . The manufacture of bees, beetles, and wasps out of a corpse can be traced back to the Hellenistic period (O’Connor 1994, 20).

(15) . I am grateful to Kathleen O’Connor for confirming this suspicion through a personal e-mail (O’Connor 2007).

(16) . I owe the following description of the homunculus recipe to Newman 2004, 179–80.

(17) . Some exception in ancient Greece might be made for Galen, who believed that women contributed a sperm of their own, but even in his case the male sperm is the more important.

(18) . Arnald is also known as Arnaldus de Villa Nova, Arnaldus de Villanueva, Arnaldus Villanovanus, Arnaud de Ville-Neuve and Arnau de Vilanova (Wikipedia 2009a).

(19) . Naturally, plenty of alarmism continued to surround alchemy. Paracelsus, for example, was known to his detractors as a drunkard and a demon worshipper (Newman 2004, 111).

(20) . I should note that The Chymical Wedding appears to both sanctify marriage and the homunculus as a metaphor for Christian resurrection while Paracelsus denied the value of the former and his homunculus would surely be useless as a metaphor for the latter, as it was the product of unholy lust, i.e., spilled seed (Newman 2004, 234–35). Islamic alchemists also connected homunculi to resurrection (O’Connor 1994, 286–330), as did a few Jewish mystics with respect to the Golem.

(21) . Paracelsus and his followers appear to have even stronger antipathy toward women than did the Greeks, for whom women were effectively vessels (Newman 2004, 202–4). In the possibly pseudonymous De natura rerum, for example, the basilisk, which can kill with a glance, comes from menstrual blood.

(22) . For Paracelsus, the homunculus is in one sense superior (made without a woman) while in another inferior (because of the role of lust, i.e., spilled semen, in its creation) (Newman 2004).

(23) . The only use of the word Golem in the Bible is from the book of Psalms and in it, the word means something embryonic, something with potential. It was later that the word came to reference an artificial humanoid created through human magic.

(24) . On the rare occasion that Golem manufacture is discouraged, such as in the story of Jeremiah’s Golem, who leaves “the Lord God is dead” written upon his own forehead when he erases the alef from the word emet (meaning “truth”) to leave met (“dead”), it is not the manufacture of the Golem that is problematic but the possibility that subsequent human beings will cease worshipping God and begin to worship themselves, reveling in their own apotheosis. Sherwin makes the natural association to human self-glorification in modern technologies that permit the creation of artificial beings, including biotechnologies and the computer sciences, which might lead us to believe that “God is dead” (Sherwin 1985, 24–25).

(25) . Influenced by Pythagorean and Neoplatonic thought, alphabetical and numerical manipulation was also used by Jābir in medieval Islam (O’Connor 1994, 131–32).

(26) . The Sefer Yetzirah dates to the third through sixth centuries CE (Scholem [1974] 1978, 26–28).

(27) . It is presumed that Rava’s Golem demonstrates his spiritual mastery because the passage in which he creates the Golem immediately follows him saying that “if the righteous wished, they could create a world” (Sanhedrin, 65b).

(28) . Idel believes that Golem creation also amplifies the prestige of righteous Jews over their gentile counterparts. He argues that the Talmudic story must be situated alongside pagan traditions of animating statues and acts as a polemic against these (Idel 1988, 18–19). Later Golem traditions, though prior to the flourishing of Golem mythology in the late medieval/early modern period, may not have referred to the literal creation of physical being. Scholem argues that medieval Jews sought to make Golems in a mystical trance (Scholem [1974] 1978, 352), though Idel is skeptical of this claim, which he considers to be, as yet, unverified (e.g., Idel 1990, 84). Eleazer ben Judah of Worms (c. 1160–1238 CE), for example, provided a recipe for creating a Golem out of manipulating the Hebrew alphabet but this creation appeared to last only as long as did the mystic’s ecstatic trance (see Idel 1990, 59–60 for a counterargument). In Idel’s analysis of the Golem, only Abraham ben Samuel Abulafia (c. 1240–after 1291 CE) and the post-Abulafia ecstatic Kabbalists fit Scholem’s model (Idel 1988, 25–27; 1990, 102).

(29) . R. Loew’s first name is occasionally given as Judah and his last name sometimes spelled Low, Lowe, and Loewe.

(30) . Rabbi Loew’s descendent Moses Meir Perles (1666–1739 CE) wrote a biography of Rabbi Loew in 1730 that does not mention the Golem legend nor did the Jews of Prague add a golem motif to Rabbi Loew’s gravestone when it was renovated in the 1720s (Kieval 1997, 7–8). It is, therefore, unlikely that Rabbi Loew had yet become the subject of Golem legends. The author of the 1841 document was not a Jew. Franz Klutschak (1814–1886 CE) was a journalist and folklorist who described Rabbi Loew and his golem in Panorama des Universums, a monthly paper about culture (ibid.)

(31) . For a modern essay in which these stories are taken as factual, see Winkler 1980.

(32) . Winkler takes Rosenberg’s story at face value (Winkler 1980, 63–65). In fact, the library from which Rosenberg supposedly copied the text (the Royal Library in Metz) never existed and was certainly never burnt down, thereby destroying the alleged Golem manuscript (Sherwin 2004, 23).

(33) . The blood libel was an accusation that Jews used the blood of Christian children in preparing their Passover matzoh. Rabbi Loew and the Golem, in Rosenberg and Bloch, found ways to stop the Christians from planting false evidence against them, saving the Jews from certain doom.

(34) . The Golem legends were attributed to Rabbi Elijah until the mid-eighteenth century, when Rabbi Loew became the central figure of—more or less—the same tales (Scholem [1960] 1969, 202). The first written references to Rabbi Elijah’s Golem come between 1630 and 1650 but may trace to the generation following Rabbi Elijah’s death in 1583 (Idel 1988, 31–32).

(35) . The Golem first acquired its darker side in early modern folktales. Prior to this, the image of a Golem run amok was absent from Jewish mystical theology. Scholem believes that the Golem was associated with “tellurian powers” (elemental powers of the earth) during this period, which he says explains the Golem’s violent nature and growing strength (Scholem [1960] 1969, 1978), a point disputed by Idel (Idel 1990, 36–37).

(36) . Rabbi Moses ben Jacob Cordovero, for example, felt that Golems were radically inferior to human beings. Because Cordovero did not believe that any kind of soul (lower or higher) could be etched in the Golem, Scholem uses Cordovero as an example of his theory of Tellurian powers, that is, that the Golem’s power comes from the earth (Scholem [1960] 1969, 195). Idel disputes this theory. He claims that, according to Cordovero, what powers exist in the earth do so only as reflections of “supernal vitality” and do not stem from the earth, per se (Idel 1990, 197).

(37) . For a good summary of the Golem in twentieth-century literature, film, and popular culture, see Goldsmith 1981.

(38) . In fact, as she points out, several of the founders of the MIT AI Lab (now the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or CSAIL) were descended from Rabbi Loew (Foerst 2004, 39).