Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology

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The first robot to walk the earth was a bronze giant called Talos. This wondrous machine was created not by MIT Robotics Lab, but by Hephaestus, the Greek god of invention.

On 12/3, Town Hall will present Adrienne Mayor, Research Scholar at Stanford University, to discuss her new book, Gods and Robots. We’re delighted to bring her to the stage for a first look at the ancient origins of humanity’s timeless impulse to create artificial life. To offer us a preview of her upcoming event, Mayor recently sat down with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss automatons, Medea, and Siri.

JS: How did you first get interested in classics and folklore?

AM: You might say I’m a historian of human curiosity—I’m interested in uncovering historical and scientific knowledge embedded in ancient mythology, legends, and folklore. Much of my work takes place in the borderlands where classical Greek and Roman literature and art meet archaeology, history, anthropology, and science. What I am seeking are the earliest inklings of the scientific impulse in premodern cultures.

JS: What inspired you to combine that interest with robots and AI?

AM: I live in Silicon Valley where brilliant innovators are exploring and producing ways to imitate, improve, and surpass nature, developing Artificial Intelligence, advanced robotics, and other marvels. So I was curious—who first imagined automatons? How deep are the roots of the human desire to make artificial life? Most historians trace the first working automatons to the Middle Ages. But I wondered, could the ideas of making self-moving devices and androids have been imagined long before the technology made them feasible? I found compelling evidence that the concepts of making artificial life were thinkable as early as the time of Homer, in myths first written down in about 700 BC.

JS: To avoid confusion, how do you define a robot? An automaton? Artificial intelligence?

AM: Robot and automaton are interchangeable in informal speech. But a glossary of technical terms is included in Gods and Robots. An automaton is a self-moving mechanical or constructed device resembling an animal or a human. Some automatons perform tasks according to predetermined instructions and some respond to different circumstances. Artificial Intelligence mimics cognitive functions associated with intellect or mind, such as learning, planning, and problem solving; there are complex categories of “narrow” and “general” AI and four ascending types of AI. Robot is a slippery term but usually means a machine or self-moving object with a power source; some robots can be programmed to sense surroundings and process data to interact with the environment and perform actions.

JS: When writing the book, what parallels between the ancient and modern world struck you most about our human want/fear/need/desire/etc of technology? 

AM: It is striking that the ancient myths about the god of invention Hephaestus, the techno-wizard Medea, the fire-bringer Prometheus, and the legendary craftsman Daedalus are really the first-ever science fiction tales. The ancient stories and art works show how the power of imagination allowed people more than 2,500 years ago to ponder how one might create driverless carts, self-navigating ships, and bronze killer robots—if only one possessed the sublime technology and genius of the gods. It is often remarked that where science fiction leads, inventions often follow. And indeed, by the fourth and third centuries BC, a profusion of genuine self-moving devices, animated statues, and automated machines were being designed and built.

Hephaestus, god of metalworking.

Medea, granddaughter of Helios, the sun god.

Prometheus, giver of fire to humanity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

JS: What ethical conundrums did the ancients face in regards to robots/technology/etc?

AM: The myths suggest that as long as the self-driving chariots, golden servant-androids, and automatic machines fabricated by Hephaestus are confined to the realm of the gods, they are charming and benign. But when automatons like the bronze robot Talos and the artificial woman Pandora are sent to earth and interact with humans, then all kinds of troubles are unleashed. Today many warn that technology favors tyranny. Notably, that ethical concern appeared in both ancient myth and in historical times and places: there was a strong link between autocratic rulers and machines of malice.

JS: What’s your favorite mythological story in regards to artificial life? Why? What can it teach us today?

AM: The myth of Pandora is my favorite. She was created as ‘evil disguised as beauty,’ to punish humans for accepting the gift of divine fire, stolen by Prometheus. Zeus ordered Hephaestus to fabricate a seductive femme fatale android ‘programmed’ to open sealed jar of eternal misery for humankind. The story has so many layers of meaning. A cruel and vindictive tyrant, Zeus jealously guarded his divine technology of fire and commissioned an evil fembot as revenge. Prometheus, whose name means ‘foresight,’ tried to warn mortals against accepting Pandora, but her deceptive charms were dazzling. Today, Pandora’s box is often compared to the allure of the ‘gifts’ of AI and robotics. Even the last thing in the fateful jar, Hope, has a double meaning. Philosophers since antiquity have debated whether Hope was the best or worst thing in the jar.

JS: If you were to make a robot, what would you name it? What would you want it to do?

AM: Great question, but ironic for me! I own a smartphone but I have no smart appliances and I never talk to Siri or Alexa. I prefer cars with few automatic features—I like to roll down my own windows and I use printed road maps instead of GPS navigation devices. I’m unlikely to interact knowingly with a robot and can’t think of anything I’d want a personal robot to do.

As for robot names, Tik-Tok is my favorite because it designates the extreme poles of robotics for good and evil. The original Tik-Tok was the rotund and genial mechanical clockwork servant in Frank Baum’s popular Oz books (1907). By 1983, his namesake has become a psychopath robot bent on getting away with murder in John Sladek’s chilling sci-fi novel Tik-Tok.

Don’t miss Adrienne Mayor’s event on 12/3 at Pigott Auditorium at Seattle University.

 

Disco Hippos and Laughing Your Head Off with Caspar Babypants

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Late nights and ear damage helped convince Chris Ballew that perhaps there was something new in store for him during his run as lead singer of Presidents of the United States of America. The band was a big deal in the 1990s. The Seattle-based Presidents released a self-titled debut album in 1995 and it peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and their song “Peaches” garnered the band their first and only Billboard Hot 100 Hit. “Kitty,” “Lump,” and “Dune Buggy,” were other popular tunes on that influential album.

Yes, the band was popular (they formed in 1993 and dissolved in 2015 since, as Ballew posted on the band’s Facebook page, “we are OLD PEOPLE NOW!”), but there was an itch during their reign that Ballew knew he wanted to scratch.

Enter Caspar Babypants. Children’s music has been Chris Ballew’s bag since 2002. He’ll be performing FOUR SHOWS soon as part of Town Hall’s Saturday Family Concert series.

Ballew recently sat down with Town Hall’s Jonathan Shipley to discuss the Beatles, losing stuff, and dark, dirty, stinky, smelly rock clubs.

JS: When you put out a new kid album, is it focused on a particular theme/idea?

CB: I don’t make themed albums as a rule but I do have a few that fit that description. There’s a holiday record, two Beatles cover albums, and two lullaby records in my library of releases. I grew up on Sgt. Peppers by the Beatles and the way that record took me on a wild psychedelic ride still influences how I make records. I want the families that buy my records to feel that same sense of being on a ride when they listen to them. For me the themed record is too much of a limitation, and I prefer the kaleidoscope of weirdness that a non-themed record can achieve. But in a general sense the theme is always bizarre little stories that I turn into songs that make me laugh!

JS: Are there commonalities between playing shows for kids v. adults?

CB: When I play a show for kids I still feel that thrill of connecting to an audience and the interplay between my music and their happiness. If the parents are paying attention and participating then I get to do some of the same call and response type stuff that I can do with an adult crowd. The fun of the mechanics of doing a show is the same, too. I always feel like I am setting up for the circus during load in and sound check. I love that feeling and I still get to experience it with my shows for families.

JS: Are there big differences then between playing for children and playing for adults?

CB: The first major difference is the time of day. My shows for families happen at 10:30 am for the most part. The days of stumbling to bed at 2:30am after an 11:00pm set time are blissfully behind me! Another difference is the venue. I’m playing in beautiful old theaters or library meeting rooms or YMCA gymnasiums instead of dark, dirty, stinky, smelly rock clubs. That is another change I’m very happy about. This time around I’m booking all of my own shows so another big difference is that that I’m responsible for all of that stuff. We used to have a booking agent and manager in the rock band so I didn’t have a lot of responsibility on that level. Now it’s all on me!

JS: I see you have a song on your new album called Dropped My Lollypop. That sucks for kids. What small things inconvenience you?

CB: I really don’t like looking for lost things (even though a bunch of my songs are about lost things!). I feel like all the time I’ve spent looking for lost things is time I want back. Beyond that I really feel that all my problems and friction is related to making this music which I love so I decided to love my problems as well and now I don’t have any problems.

JS: Your “Disco Hippo” song – quite a hip swaying, toe tapping tune. What genre of music do you think is the funniest?

CB: I think really fast bluegrass music is hilarious. There’s also an electronic artist name Squarepusher who makes it insanely fast music that sounds like synthesizers on speed playing crazy jazz. I put that on the car while I drive around and laugh my head off!

JS: What spurred you to turn from rock music to kid music?

CB: The entire time I was having success in the 90s I also had I got feeling that that success was not my final destination. I spent about 14 years hunting outside the rock band for another form of expression that would scratch that itch. Finally I figured out that simple innocent music for children was what really resonated with me in a way that was perfect. I feel like the music I make now is exactly what I really am as a person. I am way more like a child than a grown-up. The rock band was extremely close but it just wasn’t exactly right. Late nights and ear damage convinced me that I had to find something else. When I figured out I was supposed to be making this music I was incredibly relieved.

JS: What’s your favorite thing about performing for kids?

CB: As an adult I want to live in a state of imagination and wonder. I want to be able to rearrange the world in my mind to be hilarious and bizarre and entertaining. I want to find the innocent perspective necessary to really see the natural world as the greatest show on earth. I think kids have that perspective baked into their innocence. I love being around that energy and I love helping families bond over music that they can all truly love.

Don’t miss Caspar Babypants’ performances December 8 and December 9.

Feeling Roguish?

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Town Hall Seattle wants to hear about your merriest mishaps! Our Short Stories Live “Rogue’s Christmas” series is a favorite Town Hall tradition, with local actors performing unconventional holiday stores, a festive house band, and plenty of cheer. And this year, it’s getting just a little jollier. For the first time ever, we’re expanding the lineup of stories to include homegrown tales of holiday hazards.

We’re calling on you to submit your tales of holiday disasters, embarrassments, and other merry moments gone awry. Winners will receive free tickets to watch their tale be brought to life by this year’s Short Stories Live cast. To apply, email your story to holidaydisasters@townhallseattle.org by December 6.

Please note:

  • Stories must be able to be read aloud in 5 minutes or less.
  • Winners will receive two complimentary tickets to Rogues Christmas.
  • Stories will remain the intellectual property of the submitter.
  • By submitting, the entrant gives Town Hall Seattle permission to perform their story live, to record it, and to broadcast the performance.
  • Language and story content may be edited to suit a family-friendly audience.
  • Winners will be selected by the Rogue’s Christmas curator and acting cast.
  • Winners will have the opportunity to be featured on Town Hall’s blog and/or podcasts.

The Adventure Begins

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The adventure began, as many adventures do, with Indiana Jones. Dylan Thuras was infatuated with the globetrotting hero. Thuras was 10-years-old, watching Indiana Jones movies and thinking about what he wanted to be when he grew up. His conclusion — an archeologist. “Then my mom told me what an archeologist actually did,” he says. “So then I wanted to direct movies. And then I wanted to illustrate comics. I’m 35 now, and it’s interesting that aspects of my work touch on all of that.”

Thuras is the co-founder and creative director of Atlas Obscura, an online magazine and digital media company that catalogs unusual and obscure travel destinations with features on travel, exploration, history, science, and more. It has over 1 million page views each week. “Our mission,” the Atlas Obscura website states, “is to inspire wonder and curiosity about the incredible world we share.”

Thuras wants to share that incredible world with children with a new children’s book, Atlas Obscura Explorer’s Guide for the World’s Most Adventurous Kid. Thuras says, “It’s important to look outward at the world. To find wonder. Joy. The vastness and strangeness of the world. We can share this world beautifully together.” Everywhere Thuras goes — and he’s gone to places like Peruvian jungles and cosmopolitan European cities — is a place where magic is. “Almost everyone I meet, no matter where I go, has a deep sense of place, shares a diversity of wonder, and has an acknowledgement of all us sharing a wondrous world.”

That deep sense of wonder occurred for Thuras as a kid – watching those Indiana Jones movies, reading books, and going on summer vacations in the Midwest with his family (he’s got kids of his own now). “Perhaps the Ur-moment for Atlas Obscura happened when I was 12 and visited the House on the Rock. It was insane. It’s difficult to describe how amazing it is.” A tourist attraction in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin, the House on the Rock is an architectural revenge of Frank Lloyd Wright. It has a 200-foot model of a sperm whale-like creature hanging from one ceiling. It’s got an “infinity room.” It’s got the world’s largest indoor carousel. “The world is vast,” Thuras states, “and is filled with so much to discover.”

House on the Rock Infinity Room

Thuras, who grew up on those summer vacations and pouring over the 33-volume Time Life series Mysteries of the Unknown (titles include Earth Energies, Psychic Voyages, Secrets of Alchemists, Alien Encounters), hopes kids will now pour over his book. “What I want kids to get out of this book is to ask questions. About everything. This book is just the tip of a very large iceberg.” His book highlights such places as the lost city of Heracleion in Egypt and the root bridges of Cherrapunji in India; the hanging temple of Hengshan in China and jellyfish lake in Micronesia. “It’s just the smallest glimpse. I want kids to see everything they can with the widest eyes.”

Mysteries of the Unknown

“The fastest shortcut in putting your mind in a state of curiosity is to travel. It pushes yourself into new areas of discovery.” But he notes that you don’t have to go to some village in Kenya, or some gleaming palace in Europe to discover something new and wonderful. It might be just around the corner from you. “If you put your mind into that space of inquiry, it’s an amazing thing!”

Maybe around the corner from you are mysterious Mima Mounds or maybe an old cave filled with glow worms. Maybe get up from your chair and see what’s going on outside right now. Grab your fedora. Become Indiana Jones — books in hand, eyes wide open.


Catch Dylan’s talk on October 20, 2018 at the Phinney Center. Tickets available here.

Environmental Luminaries Return to Town Hall

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Every year our Distilled fundraiser captures the essence of Town Hall’s programming—the big ideas, the amplification of community voices, and the collaboration with organizations on a local or nationwide scale. This year we’re bringing back two luminaries who have a celebrated history on our stages. Brady Piñero Walkinshaw, former member of the Washington State House of Representatives and current CEO of Grist, will join Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, to reflect on all the ways which Town Hall embodies the spirit of civic engagement and inspires activists in our city and beyond.

Brady Piñero Walkinshaw is a familiar guest at Town Hall. Earlier this season he spoke with sea ice scientist Peter Wadhams on October 4 about the massive planetary changes he’s observed in the Arctic region. They ruminated on the ways in which sea ice is the “canary in the mine” of planetary change, how it plays a vital role in reflecting solar heat back into space, and how research shows that Arctic sea ice may be in decline faster than ever before. Walkinshaw is the CEO of Seattle’s own environmental media outlet Grist. He served in the Washington State House of Representatives from 2013 to 2017, representing the 43rd district. He is a Fulbright Scholar, and founded a nonprofit in Honduras that fosters youth leadership and prevents urban violence.

Annie Leonard is the Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, and has worked with organizations such as GAIA (Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives), Health Care Without Harm, and Essential Action.  Leonard also has a decorated history on Town Hall’s stages. In 2010, she made a marquee stop at Town Hall on her tour to spread awareness for her film The Story of Stuff, investigating where our stuff comes from and where it goes when we toss it. The film blossomed into The Story of Stuff Project, which works to empower people around the globe to fight for a more sustainable and just future. Leonard also met with Erik Assadourian and Chip Gillers as part of the State of the World 2013 to explore the scientific and political feasibility of a sustainable society. And In May 2015 she joined a panel of climate scientists, filmmakers, and artists to lend them an environmentalist’s perspective in reflecting on the top 10 student submissions to the UW Climate Change Video Contest.

These environmental activist icons join us at Distilled on May 18 at the Canvas event space in SODO—and we would love to see you there as well! Distilled gathers our Members, our friends, and our community for an evening of cocktails, games, conversation, and a chance to raise the paddle in support of Town Hall. You’ll enjoy live music and an inspired conversation from Walkinshaw and Leonard on Town Hall’s role in advancing the work of impassioned change-makers. Their meeting is reminder that the programs at Town Hall elevate our awareness and impel us to action. From Grist to Greenpeace, the people on the forefront of environmental activism congregate on Town Hall’s stages—and their ideas resonate locally, nationally, and globally.

Get Your Tickets to Distilled 2018 here.

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