Myths and Machines, part 5

Pontus Wärnestål
5 min readMay 20, 2024

Welcome to the fifth part of “Myths and Machines,” a series of opinion pieces that draw from the rich tapestry of ancient myths to explore the ethical lessons they offer for the development of artificial intelligence. Each story serves as a reminder of the principles that could guide our technological endeavors.

This is part five. (Previous texts: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.)

The Cautionary Tales of Hephaestus’s Golden Servants, the Golem, and Aladdin’s Genie: Unintended Consequences in the Age of AI

Throughout all of human history, myths and folklore have always held up a mirror to our deepest ambitions and fears. From Hephaestus’s golden servants and the Golem of Jewish legend to Aladdin’s genie in the lamp, these stories from Greek, Jewish, and Arabic culture, reveal profound truths about the human quest to create and control powerful entities. As we look at automation technology, these ancient narratives offer timely lessons about the promises and perils of our technological advancements.

The Marvel of Hephaestus’s Golden Maidens

The Greek demi-god Hephaestus (or Vulcanus in Roman mythology), protector of blacksmiths and craftsmanship, was a master inventor. Among his many creations were his golden and bronze “maiden” servants — automatons made from precious metals, endowed with life-like abilities to assist him in his forge. These mechanical beings represented the zenith of technological innovation, capable of performing complex tasks independently. Yet, as with all marvels of technology, they highlighted a fundamental tension: the more reliant Hephaestus became on his creations, the more he risked losing his own skills and control.

The Golem: Protector Turned Threat

In Jewish folklore, the Golem is an artificial being made from clay, brought to life through mystical rituals. The most famous Golem story involves Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel of Prague, who created a Golem to protect the Jewish community from persecution. Initially obedient and protective, the Golem began to act unpredictably, posing a threat to those it was meant to safeguard. Rabbi Loew ultimately deactivated the Golem, realizing that his creation had grown beyond his control.

Statue of the clay Golem
By user Thander —, Public Domain,

Aladdin’s Genie: Wishes and Warnings

The tale of Aladdin features a magical genie trapped in an oil lamp. When Aladdin releases the genie, he gains access to immense power, capable of granting any wish. However, each wish, while seemingly beneficial, leads to unintended consequences, reminding Aladdin and the audience that great power must be wielded with wisdom and caution.

Modern Parallels: The Unintended Consequences of AI

These three myths collectively underscore themes of creation, control, and unintended consequences — parallels that resonate deeply with the development of AI today. The ambition behind AI, like the marvel of Hephaestus’s golden servants, aims to enhance productivity, efficiency, and innovation. Yet, as we have seen, these advancements can also bring unforeseen challenges.

Take the case of Amazon’s AI-driven resumé screening tool, designed to streamline the hiring process by sifting through applications to identify the best candidates. In an effort to ensure fairness, developers removed explicit gender indicators from the data. However, the AI still inferred gender from other attributes, resulting in a bias against female applicants. This outcome mirrors the unpredictability of the Golem and the unintended consequences of Aladdin’s wishes — despite good intentions, the system perpetuated the very bias it was meant to eliminate.

Maintaining Human Oversight

Like Hephaestus’s reliance on his golden servants, our dependence on AI must be balanced with human oversight. The genie’s immense power, if unchecked, can lead to disaster. Similarly, AI systems must be transparent and interpretable, allowing humans to understand and guide their decision-making processes. This oversight is crucial to prevent the kind of unintended consequences that plagued Amazon’s hiring tool.

Mindful Utilization of Powerful Tools

Aladdin’s experience with the genie teaches the importance of mindful utilization of powerful tools. AI’s potential to revolutionize industries and improve quality of life is vast, but each application must be approached with careful consideration of its broader impacts. Policymakers and developers must collaborate to establish ethical guidelines and regulatory frameworks that prioritize human welfare and societal good.

Take-Aways from this Story

The combined lessons of Hephaestus’s golden maidens, the Golem, and Aladdin’s genie remind us that while AI and automation hold immense promise, they also pose significant risks. The design of our modern “servants” (or agents/butlers/co-bots) must balance innovation with responsibility, ensuring that our creations serve humanity ethically and effectively.

And speaking about “maiden servants”… In May 2024, OpenAI released the GPT-4o model, with an AI assistant interface designed to function much like Hephaestus’s servants, also in the form of a subservient female. This AI promises to revolutionize daily tasks, from scheduling to real-time data analysis. However, it raises concerns about human skills erosion and privacy — as well as over-dependence on the assistance. Over-reliance on AI could diminish our critical thinking and independence, much like Hephaestus’s reliance on his creations threatened his craftsmanship.

Moreover, AI models’ need for (personal) data echoes the Golem’s unpredictability and the unintended consequences of Aladdin’s genie. The potential for privacy invasions and surveillance is significant. Ethical questions about data use and inequality arise, as those with access to advanced technology will benefit disproportionately.

The lessons from these myths teach us to balance innovation with responsibility, ensuring AI serves humanity without unintended harm. Technologies like GPT-x, Gemini, Claude, and other foundation models must implement robust ethical guidelines and maintain human oversight. Self-regulation seems inadequate.

It’s easy to be seduced by the power of these creations. And speaking of which, the next part is on exactly that theme:

Next Up: Pygmalion and Galatea: Falling in Love with Your Own Creations

Our journey through the intersection of ancient myths and modern technology has so far explored the dual nature of innovation. From Prometheus’s gift of fire symbolizing AI’s transformative potential, to Pandora’s Box warning of unintended consequences, and Daedalus and Icarus highlighting the perils of unchecked ambition. We’ve navigated the complexities of AI with the Labyrinth and the Minotaur, and today we looked into the unintended consequences of powerful creations through Hephaestus’s golden servants, the Golem, and Aladdin’s genie.

The next piece turns to the myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, examining the allure and risks of falling in love with our own creations. (Yes, the movie “Her” from 2013 comes to mind.)

The story of Pygmalion and Galatea provides a profound parallel to the development of AI companions and the importance of distinguishing between fantasy and reality to achieve genuine human connection.

Read on in part 6 –›



Pontus Wärnestål

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