materials, were featured in tales about artificial creatures for a long time. For centuries, rumors abounded about talking heads made of brass.The thirteenth-century scholastic and cleric, Albertus Magnus, supposedly used alchemy to make one such head, which was smashed to bits by his disciple, Thomas Aquinas. The friar Roger Bacon was said to have made another.
Later, clay became a favored material and was used to construct the golems of Jewish lore.The word “golem” means “unformed sub- stance” or “formless mass” in Hebrew, and suggests parallels to the biblical account of the birth of Adam: God fashions him “from the dust of the ground” or from clay (“Adam” comes from the Hebrew for “red clay”) and breathes life into him. (Those two steps, construc- tion followed by animation, are characteristic of many beings in the virtual history.)
The best-known golem was the one made in the sixteenth cen- tury by the wise Rabbi Löw to protect the Jews of Prague from pogroms. Divinity played a role in the golem’s coming to life, but not in the same way that God animated Adam. In one version, the golem awakens when the rabbi calls on the power of God by writing God’s name on the creature’s forehead and saying holy words. In another, the golem rises purely through the power of the word, when Loeb writes “emeth” or “truth” in Hebrew on the being, and the creature disintegrates when the rabbi erases the first letter, turning the word into “meth” or “death.”That story is a metaphor for the importance of symbols in creating artificial beings, whether the symbols be the binary language of digital computers, or the letters A, G, T, and C, representing the four bases, adenine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine of the DNA alphabet.
The golem tale also expresses a recurring theme in the imaginary history of artificial beings:Though the creature is made to protect, it goes out of control and falls on its maker. From the storytelling view- point, the idea that artificial beings can turn harmful, or might be made with evil intent, is justified by its dramatic impact. It also raises profound questions: If artificial creatures were to outstrip human ca- pabilities, how would we ensure their obedience and good behavior?