AI and the original story of Pandora's box

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In discussions about the implications of artificial intelligence (AI), someone almost always evokes the ancient Greek myth of Pandora's box. In the modern fairy-tale version of the story, Pandora is depicted as a tragically curious young woman who opens a sealed urn and inadvertently releases eternal misery on humankind. And yet, the actual story of Pandora is far more apropos to debates about AI and machine learning than many realise. What it shows is that it is better to listen to "Prometheans", who are concerned about humanity's future, than "Epimetheans", who are easily dazzled by the prospect of short-term gains.

One of the oldest Greek myths, the story of Pandora was first recorded more than 2,500 years ago. In the original telling, she was not some innocent girl who succumbed to the temptation to open a forbidden jar. Rather, as the poet Hesiod tells us, Pandora, whose name means "all gifts", was "made, not born". Commissioned by all-powerful Zeus and created in the forge of Hephaestus, the god of invention, Pandora was a lifelike android created to look like a bewitching maiden. Her purpose was to entrap mortals as a manifestation of kalos kakon: "Evil hidden in beauty". She was presented as a bride to Epimetheus, and her dowry was the fateful sealed jar.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 18, 2018, with the headline AI and the original story of Pandora's box. Subscribe