What is Artificial Intelligence? (Part 2)

In November 2022, I started this series of posts about what artificial intelligence (AI) is. In the first part, I proposed that readers identify the AI around them or that comes into their heads. I argued that the difficulty in understanding this technology may come from the lack of consensus on what it is. If deciphering intelligence comes from a long discussion that spans several areas, its “artificial version” hinders the task even more. In the meantime, I suggested starting with a review of history and briefly explaining the conception of the term. Still, I warned that it likely begins earlier and that thinking machines have already populated the imagination for a long time. So, in this second part, I will also talk about history, but of another type, the stories created by our imagination.

Machines that think or come to life have been imagined for a long time. In antiquity, Homer’s Iliad tells of self-propelled chairs called “tripods” and golden “attendants” built by Hephaestus, the lame blacksmith god, to help him get around. In ancient Greek myth, Ovid recounts in his Metamorphoses that Pygmalion carved an ivory statue of a beautiful maiden; from her, Venus gives life to Galatea (Nilsson, 2009).

Aristotle also idealized automation in “Politics,” saying that, with it, each tool could perform the task of its own volition or perceive the need, making the services of master craftsmen and enslavers unnecessary. Many centuries later, Leonardo da Vinci sketched a humanoid robot shaped like a medieval knight (Nilsson, 2009). Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and Blaise Pascal designed machines that mechanized arithmetic, which until then had been the domain of educated men called “calculators”; even so, both never claimed that they were devices capable of thinking (Buchanan, 2005).

Returning to fictional automatons, the life-size mechanical doll Olympia sings and dances in Act I of Les Contes d’Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann) by Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880). Karel Čapek, a Czech author and playwright, published a work titled R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in 1920, in which he introduced the word “robot,” which in Czech denotes “forced labor” or “drudgery” (Nilsson, 2009).

In science fiction literature, the writer Mary W. Shelley and her companion, the poet Percy Shelley, accompanied by the writer Lord Byron and the doctor John Polidori, stayed at the Villa Diodati in Cologny, Switzerland, during the summer of 1816. Believes It turns out that, in a bet on who would write the scariest story, Mary wrote the first drafts of Frankenstein, and Polidori wrote the first modern story about vampires, even inspiring Bram Stoker’s Dracula (Gordon, 2020). Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” is the story of Victor Frankenstein, a scientist who creates a creature through scientific experiments, only to face the terrible consequences of his quest to create life. By coincidence (or not), Lord Byron’s daughter, Ada Lovelace, is called the world’s first programmer (Nilsson, 2009), which may be further evidence of how mechanistic thinking dominated the vision of thinkers at the time, both in literature and in science.

Tired of fictional stories in which robots were destructive, Isaac Asimov wrote several stories about robots, which had the “Three Laws of Robotics” embedded in their positronic brains (Nilsson, 2009) (prof. Marcello Zappellini talks about them in this post here). However, Shelley and Asimov were not the only ones. Jules Verne is another well-known in classical literature, but there is also L. Frank Baum, writer of “The Wizard of Oz,” with his descriptions of several robots and the Tiktok mechanical man of 1907 (Buchanan, 2005). Today, Tiktok is the name of a social network. Still, the description that the author gave to the Tiktok robot is very reminiscent of what we today identify as a mechanical man: “extra responsive, creator of thoughts and perfect speech… Thinks, speaks, acts and does everything but live” (Buchanan, 2005, p.54).

Throughout history, from the Hephaestus tripod in Homer’s Iliad to Greek myth, from Mary W. Shelley’s Frankenstein to Isaac Asimov’s three laws (Buchanan, 2005; Nilsson, 2009), fiction has served as a literary device that encourages reflection on the essence of humanity. In some cases, this influence manifested itself only through metaphors, such as René Descartes’ “mechanical man.” Still, mechanized thinking prompted philosophers like Leibniz to contemplate a logic for creating thinking devices (Buchanan, 2005).

The search for artificial intelligence, quixotic or not, began in the minds of dreamers (Nilsson, 2009). Nils J. Nilsson, one of the pioneers of Artificial Intelligence (AI), narrates the history of this discipline in his book “The Quest for Artificial Intelligence” (2009), highlighting how the search for this intelligence originated in dreams. The transition from imagination to reality has transformed the conception of non-human, inorganic intelligence into an established scientific field known as AI. The catchy term was proposed by John McCarthy during the Dartmouth Conference in 1956, even before the technology was actually developed. The exploration of human intelligence to replicate it marked this moment among a group of scientists, just as creation and human nature inspired the group of authors during the nights at Villa Diodati when Mary Shelley conceived Frankenstein (Gordon, 2020).

Although the imagery presents limited versions of non-human intelligence, it has lent credibility to the mechanistic view of behavior and the possibility of replication (Buchanan, 2005), not only in fiction but also in the development of AI technology since its beginnings in the 1950s. (Nilsson, 2009). It is clear, therefore, that the dreams of the imaginary and visionaries mix in a corpus of narratives that shape the fears and hopes of technology (Hermann, 2023). However, as Hermann (2023) states, science fiction cannot be a technological prediction or assessment. Taking science fiction AI too literally and applying it to science communication paints a distorted picture of the technology’s current potential. It diverts attention from the real-world implications and risks of AI. These risks are not about humanoid robots or sentient machines but rather the scoring, nudges, discrimination, exploitation, and surveillance of humans through AI technologies across governments and companies.


Bruce G. Buchanan. (2005). A (very) brief history of artificial intelligence. AI Magazine, 26(4), 1059–1067. https://doi.org/10.1051/medsci/2020189

Gordon, C. (2020). Mulheres extraordinárias: as criadoras e a criatura. Tradução de Giovanna Louise Libralon. Rio de Janeiro: DarkSide Books.

Hermann, I. (2023). Artificial intelligence in fiction: between narratives and metaphors. AI and Society, 38(1), 319–329. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00146-021-01299-6

Nilsson, N. J. (2009). The Quest for Artificial Intelligence. In The Quest for Artificial Intelligence. https://doi.org/10.1017/cbo9780511819346

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