Myths and Machines, part 1

Pontus Wärnestål
5 min readMay 17, 2024

Welcome to “Myths and Machines,” a series that draw from the rich tapestry of ancient myths to explore the ethical lessons they offer for the development of artificial intelligence. Each story, from the cautionary tale of Pandora’s Box to the relentless pursuit of Sisyphus, serves as a reminder of the principles that could guide our technological endeavors.

Why should ancient myths and legends matter in our high-tech world in the 21st century? The timeless cultural heritage going back thousands of years offer vital insights that are just as essential for tech development as learning to code. These stories encapsulate profound truths about human nature, ambition, and the consequences of our actions. They provide a moral compass that can guide us through the complex ethical landscape of modern technology.

For us as storytelling animals, these legends encapsulate great wisdom very efficiently and in an understandable format. So, I thought I would collect a few well-known myths and see what parallells can be drawn to tech-driven culture, especially facets of AI.

The potential of AI to transform industries, enhance human capabilities, and address complex global issues is immense. Yet, with this power comes the risk of unintended consequences — ethical pitfalls, biases, and the erosion of privacy and trust. As techies and engineers forge ahead, the lessons embedded in our cultural narratives can offer valuable insights. (So, boost your team with an Arts and Humanities person, please.)

These myths, which have captivated and instructed humanity for millennia, remind us that many of the ethical questions we face today are not new. They are beautifully formulated in the arts, captured in stories that speak to the human condition and the struggle between ambition and responsibility. By revisiting these ancient tales, we can uncover the wisdom necessary to navigate the complexities of AI with integrity and foresight.

Let’s start with the first story — about the Titan Prometheus.

Prometheus: A Tale of Fire, Innovation, and Responsibility

In Greek mythology, Prometheus stands as a symbol of defiance, innovation, and sacrifice. A clever Titan, Prometheus dared to challenge Zeus himself by stealing fire from Mount Olympus and giving it to humanity. This gift of fire was not merely a physical flame but a symbol of knowledge, technology, and progress. It enabled humans to cook food, forge tools, and build civilizations — transforming the course of human history.

An ancient Greek black-figure kylix showing Prometheus bound to a pillar with an eagle pecking at his liver.
By Daderot — Own work, Public Domain,

Prometheus’s act was undeniably heroic and a story of rebellion against the higher powers. He took a monumental risk to empower humanity, believing that such transformative power should not be hoarded by the gods but shared with all. This democratization of power sparked human advancement, highlighting the importance of access to knowledge and technology. However, his rebellion came at a steep price. Zeus, enraged by this defiance, condemned Prometheus to eternal torment. Chained to a rock, an eagle devoured his liver daily, only for it to regenerate each night, ensuring his perpetual suffering.

The essence of Prometheus’s story is dual-faceted. On one hand, it champions the idea that transformative power should be accessible to all, not restricted to an elite few. On the other hand, it serves as a stern reminder of the consequences and responsibilities that come with wielding such power.

Today, with another significant technological revolution at our doorstep — that of artificial intelligence (AI) — the tale of Prometheus is more relevant than ever. AI, much like fire in the original myth, holds the potential to revolutionize our world. It promises advancements in healthcare, education, industry, and beyond — capable of processing vast amounts of data, learning from patterns, and performing tasks with superhuman efficiency. Some even argue that AI is as significant a human invention as fire itself.

However, with this tremendous power comes significant responsibility. The democratization of AI should be a priority, ensuring its benefits are widespread and not confined to a privileged few. This echoes Prometheus’s belief in sharing transformative power with humanity. Yet, we must also heed the cautionary aspects of the myth. AI has the dual potential to bring both immense benefits and substantial risks. This is perhaps what Zeus suspected and why he denied humans the knowledge of fire...

Our time’s “fire” — AI — struggles with issues such as privacy invasion, job displacement, algorithmic biases, and the potential erosion of human autonomy are real and pressing concerns.

The punishment of Prometheus underscores the consequences of using powerful tools without due consideration. Just as fire can warm and destroy, AI can also enhance and harm. The challenge lies in managing this power responsibly, with ethical guidelines and robust safeguards to prevent misuse and unintended consequences.

The story of Prometheus teaches us that while it is vital to democratize technological power, it must be done with a mindful approach to the ethical and societal implications. It’s up to us to ensure AI serves the greater good, fostering innovation and progress while safeguarding against potential pitfalls.

What we can take away from this story:

The lesson of Prometheus is clear: transformative power like AI should be shared widely to benefit all of humanity, but it must be wielded with great responsibility and ethical consideration. Only then can we ensure that this powerful tool enhances human life without causing harm, just as fire did for our ancestors.

Resources: Prometheus today

Many technologies, including AI, default to replace workers but fail to improve productivity, seizing back control from a small elite of tech leaders pursuing their own interests. This book on economic theory and manifesto for building a better society provides the understanding and vision to reimagine and reshape the path of technology and create true shared prosperity — like Prometheus bringing fire to humanity instead of letting Zeus and the gods hoard it:

› Johnson, S. & Acemoglu, D. (2023). Power and Progress: Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity. Hodder And Stoughton Ltd.

Next up: Pandora

Prometheus’ story of transformative power and potential risks of technology, sets the stage for understanding the dual nature of AI. The next story is about Pandora and her jar (although we call it a “box” today) that explores the consequences of unbridled curiosity and innovation, highlighting the importance of caution and foresight in technological advancements. Read more in part 2.



Pontus Wärnestål

Deputy Professor (PhD) at Halmstad University (Sweden). Father of two. I ride my bike to work.