In the last 2,500 years human civilization has made great strides; and in merely the last 80 of these, technology has advanced to the point where machines, endowed with artificial intelligence, are causing mankind to question its very role on the planet. Nevertheless, technological progress has rarely been linear. Sometimes, due to the collapse of civilizations, empires and nations, technologies are lost, and have to be ‘reinvented’, or re-discovered’ all over again. The computer, intended as a calculating machine, is one of these; and important related clues have emerged from the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. That’s where the story begins. And the story reveals that not only did the Greeks and Romans have a deep relationship with science, through philosophy, but also with technology. And the scientific and technological pursuits blended with the idea of the primacy of the human factor over everything else. Seen in this context, the Antikythera serves as a symbol through which to understand the present era’s pursuit of artificial intelligence.
In the early 1900s, in a stretch of sea between the Peloponnese and Crete, when a group of sponge fishermen had to take refuge, due to a storm, on the rocky island of Antikythera, situated just northwest of Crete. Once the storm was over, the fishermen decided to continue fishing and dived off the island. At a depth of about 43 meters, they discovered the wreck of a ship, which turned out to have sunk sometime in the early 1st century BC; it was used for the transport of luxurious objects, including bronze and marble statues. But among these objects, one drew special attention. It appeared to be a small machine of unusual mechanical complexity for the late Hellenistic period, featuring a series of interconnected gears and pinions. Though heavily corroded and encrusted from years at the bottom of the sea, it was clearly composed of three main parts and dozens of other small mechanisms. A more detailed analysis of the object placed its construction to a period between 150-100 BC.
This machine is now known simply as Antikythera; and it just might be considered the first example of a computer. It might be a stretch to describe a machine from ancient times as a computer. But, then again, the Greeks were familiar with many of the principles of geometry, mathematics, and even of physics and astronomy.
The Antikythera machine, as it was found on the seabed, is made of copper and mounted on a wooden frame, measuring 30 X 15 cm with a thickness of 7.5 cm thick, was made of copper and mounted in a wooden frame housing a clockwork mechanism. The clue to its purpose comes from the over 2,000 characters of writing (almost all deciphered), but its purpose was not uncovered until 1951, when the English historian of science Derek de Solla Price began a study that would end up taking some 30 years to determine that the machine was a miniature planetarium, moved by gear wheels, and programmed to reveal the parameters to calculate the sunrise, the phases of the moon, the movements of five planets (the five visible to the naked eye, the only ones known at the time), the equinoxes, the solstices, the months, the days of the week and, according to a recent study, the dates when to schedule Olympic Games. In short, it was a real computer, a mechanical computer to be sure, but a machine designed to facilitate calculation and problem solving. It is the first computer in known history, or more accurately, the first whose existence has been recognized in the present era.
The mechanism revolves around a central axis. When the axis turns, it triggers a system of shafts and gears, which was likely (because they have not been preserved) attached to hands that would have moved at different speeds, around a series of dials. Price was only able to partially rebuild the machine as some gears were missing. In recent years a group of British, Greek and American researchers, the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project further investigated the mechanism analysis using more fragments and modern study methods, from computed tomography to high-resolution digital reworking of the surface. At the end of 2008 Michael Wright, an engineer at the Science Museum in London, completed the reassembly—a full working copy—of the machine. On the front panel there are two superimposed dials showing the zodiac and the days of the year; hands indicate the position of the sun, the moon and the five planets. The upper quadrant represents the Metonic Cycle 9 (the 19-year cycle), supporting a synchronized calendar reproducing the course of the sun as well as the moon. The Antikythera also features the Saros Cycle, used to predict eclipses—a period of 18.03 years (223 synodic months) at the end of which the same lunar and solar eclipses repeat. There are 29 lunar eclipses and 41 solar eclipses during one Saros cycle.
As extraordinary as all the details are, the most fascinating aspect of the Antikythera machine is that until its discovery and reconstruction, such mechanical precision was only seen in mechanisms created around and after 1050 AD. In 1597, Galileo Galilei built his Compasso geometrico et militari, a sort of slide rule made up of two graduated and hinged rods with which it was possible to perform square and cubic roots and many other operations. The uses of the ruler also extended to topography, land surveying and ballistics; he himself created a manual in Italian (rather than Latin) which was printed in a few dozen copies. John Napier, a Scottish mathematician, astronomer and physicist, devised a device called the sticks or bones, which were able to reduce the multiplication and the division to simple handling procedures, with semi-mechanical processing.
The Antikythera and What it tells us About Artificial Intelligence
The ancient Greeks have given the world philosophy. But, it seems they may also have given the world the first computer, which raises an interesting question about the relationship between philosophy and computers. Pythagoras, of the famous theorem, was fascinated by the circle and closely identified reality, the world, with numbers. He was impressed by the calculus of ratios in music which demonstrate how beauty in music depends on correct mathematical relations between the notes of a scale. In the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes proposed a mechanical, or computational explanation of the human mind. For Hobbes perception, imagination and memory could be explained in terms of the motions of matter according to the laws of mechanics. Reasoning is none other than calculating, adding and subtracting, the consequences of general names agreed to designate and represent our thoughts.
In 1642, Pascal developed one of the first calculating machines, capable of doing sums. Later, Leibniz, one of the founders of calculus, designed a machine capable of multiplication, believing that statements about complex objects could be derived from statements about their simpler components by a process analogous to multiplication. He proposed that if a few fundamental concepts could be isolated—a kind of alphabet of human thought—all truths would be calculated from them.
And more recently, Alan Turing himself devised primitive digital computing mechanisms, including the one used to decipher the “Enigma” code during World War II. Turing saw intelligent action in terms of computation, and later proposed the famous Turing test to estimate the intellectual abilities of computers by evaluating conversations between humans and computers. While, the studying the links between philosophy and information technology, or computer science, may seem construed or at best a trivial intellectual exercise, exploring this relationship could help understand the current Artificial Intelligence, analyzing it as an inevitable evolution of human ingenuity such that the world might learn to embrace and adapt, rather than merely, fear it. Computer science itself is deeply rooted in Greek philosophy: that is philosophy a set of arguments, methods and models that construct the methods through which to pursue research. Computer science complements traditional philosophical activity, challenging it and altering philosophers’ understanding of fundamental concepts, such as those of consciousness, knowledge and of course intelligence. In this sense, the Antikythera machine serves as a reminder of what artificial intelligence can achieve and how it should be adapted in society. When seen through a philosophical lens, the Antikythera, placed in the context of its origins in Greek philosophy (as all science and technology in classical times had some relationship to philosophers), reminds us to ask: Can we build “really” intelligent computers? And in asking the question, we realize that mankind remains at the heart—or the mind—of it all.