Ancient Roman mythology shows an obsession with sex robots that’s lasted thousands of years

The tale of Pygmalion explores the same problems and desires created by modern-day sexbots.
The tale of Pygmalion explores the same problems and desires created by modern-day sexbots.
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Technological advances may have made sex robots more feasible than ever before, but warnings and fantasies about them are nothing new. The basic desire for artificial, controllable sexual companions has existed for millennia.

At a New York University conference on the Ethics of Artificial Intelligence earlier this month, Kate Devlin, lecturer in computing at Goldsmiths, University of London, pointed out that interest in sex robots is apparent in the ancient myth of Pygmalion.

In the tale, which is often considered a Greek myth and is set in Cyprus but was written by the Roman poet Ovid in the 1st century AD, a sculptor named Pygmalion falls in love with his creation, a woman made of ivory. The stone statue comes to life and becomes Pygmalion’s lover.

“It has that desire to create an artificial person who’s some kind of perfection, an idealized person,” explains Devlin. “It’s making something to your own specification. And there’s an element where you have control over it.”

Devlin is working on a book, The Future History of Robots, along with Genevieve Liveley, classics and ancient history lecturer at Bristol University. Liveley says there’s both a dark and a utopian reading of Pygmalion—and that both apply to the notion of sex robots.

“Pygmalion doesn’t like the outside world, he doesn’t like women, he sees them as prostitutes. They disgust him because they wear make-up and behave inappropriately,” she says. “For Pygmalion in Ovid’s story, having a sexbot of his own is great because he doesn’t have to interact with real women, he doesn’t have to engage with the world. He’s no longer living a life of celibacy, which is something David Levy picks up on in his work Love and Sex with Robots, arguing that sexbots in the 21st century will be an answer to loneliness.”

But that’s certainly not the only reading of Pygmalion. “You get this sense there’s something really perverted about him. He’s made this creature because he can’t get on with real women, because he’s messed up, misogynistic, and can’t sustain real human relationships,” says Liveley.

Ovid’s narrative becomes a dystopian tale of incest, in which Pygmalion and his creation reproduce, and the creatures they create then have sex with each other.

“The sex robots in both antiquity and modernity have this power to incite very strong reactions, either very much welcoming the utopian fantasy or sounding a dark warning against dystopian horrors,” Liveley says.

Pygmalion is far from the only tale that draws on sex robot themes. The story was inspired by the Greek myth of Pandora, in which a woman is molded from the earth by the gods. “She’s inherently artificial. She’s a technological creation,” says Liveley. “She’s programmed by the gods to behave in certain ways that are all about being seductive and erotic.” The earliest surviving writing on Pandora dates from 8th century BCE, though Liveley says it likely has much older roots. The tale is also the Greek version of the tale of Adam and Eve, a connection that highlights how the first woman of the Abrahamic religions was molded to serve the needs of the man.

The tale of Pygmalion has been retold by Shakespeare in A Winter’s Tale, George Bernard Shaw in his 1913 play Pygmalion, and in the Broadway musical My Fair Lady. Liveley notes that similar themes come up in films and TV shows such Metropolis, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and in the Buffybots of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The popularity of tales that focus on desire for sexbot-like creatures should not be surprising, says Liveley, as the concept is at the heart of gender relations.

“The Pygmalion story is retelling the Pandora story, which is one of the oldest stories we have,” she says. “At a fundamental level we’re having conversations about interactions between men and women. It’s about sex and the sexes.”