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The Lucent Library of Science and Technology - Artificial Intelligence

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As far back as the ancient Greek civilization, people have imagined machines and mechanical men that could work and think like any human. One Greek myth, for example, tells of the Greek god Hephaestus, who built mechanical men to forge powerful weapons and spectacular jewelry. When the king of Crete requested that he make a giant man to guard his island, Hephaestus constructed the metallic warrior Talos. Talos patrolled the shores of Crete until Jason and the Argonauts defeated it.

In the late 1800s, as the genre of science fiction developed, books about intelligent machines serving human masters sparked the public’s imagination, but not until the 1920s did such machines acquire the name robot. In 1920 Czech playwright Karel Capek published the play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in which the character Professor Rossum manufactures artificial men to do all the menial chores, called robota in the Czech language. Rossum’s plan backfires and armies of robots are purchased by warring nations. Eventually the robots themselves revolt and attempt to take over all of humankind.

In the 1950s and 1960s a series of movies and books portrayed the blessings but more often the horrors of intelligent machines, which took all forms. Some were Talos-like robots made of shiny metal, like Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951); others were intelligent supercomputers that threatened to take over the world in movies like Colossus: The Forbin Project (1969). In this film the supercomputer that ran the U.S. national defense systems overrode all human control. But perhaps the most famous malevolent supercomputer was HAL 9000, the sinister manager of the spaceship Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). HAL could learn and act independent of human input and in so doing it killed all but one crew member.
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