Pygmalion in Silicon Valley

Pygmalion carving his statue, Lyon, Bibliothèque Municipale, 742 (late 14th century)

Of all the ancient myths, one speaks, I think, most eloquently to our digital age. Pygmalion, the sculptor who fell in love with a statue he had carved, was made famous by Bernard Shaw, Lerner & Loewe and Hollywood. But before he metamorphosed as Mr Higgins in My Fair Lady, Pygmalion was, according to Ovid, a legendary misogynist sculptor from ancient Cyprus.

Pygmalion was also a tech guy, not just in the ancient sense of the word (techne, craftmanship), but also in the modern sense of technology expert. Ovid approximated Pygmalion’s true vocation, which was that of modelling raw matter into something meaningful, potentially beautiful, potentially true than life, even trans-real. Ovid was wrong: Pygmalion was a talented programmer from Northern California.

The story is simple: having carved the most beautiful ivory statue of a woman, Pygmalion falls in love with it. The difference between atemporal myth and our anodyne reality lies in what happened next: defeated by desire, he receives from Venus the gift of artificial intelligence, which the goddess bestows on the statue. Taking pity on his misery, Venus brings the statue to life. In a strange post-classical tradition, the statue is named Galatea.

Venus said, “It is not good for man to be alone. Let’s give him A.I.” And suddenly the man was not alone anymore. 

There is a Pygmalion hiding in every desire to build a conscious machine, to turn ivory into soft tissue, algorithm into human consciousness. The Deus ex machina which resolved Ovid’s conflict has become the Deus in machina of our silicon dreams, the digital reverie of our modern mythology.

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