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How Four Not-So-Famous Greeks Remind Us of Our Value in an AI World

Jeff Miller

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Now that artificial intelligence has become an immediate reality and not some far-off reckoning, the drift toward a technological singularity — with humanity itself as collateral damage — has suddenly become a riptide.

I have no antidote for our collective dread. But I do have a suggestion.

While it might seem a pointless and naive exercise, at such moments I turn to history itself, particularly the ancient Greek variety. I’m not looking for answers to our existential predicament as much as reassurance about our value as brainy and adaptive bipeds. And it’s in the life stories of these audacious, curious, brave, and clever Greeks that I always find evidence of humanity’s talent to persevere and over perform.

Here then are short takes on four lesser-known ancient Greeks, whose tenacity and conviction remind us that we, as their flesh-and-blood successors, should be pushing the limits of our own abilities and intelligence as machines expand theirs.

Kyniska

Spartan women were a subject of fascination and wonder in the classical Greek world. Unlike women in other Greek city-states, they could inherit, own, and manage land. Spartan girls were also formally educated and athletic — engaging in regular physical activity, such as running, jumping, and strength exercises.

Perhaps that’s why Kyniska, daughter of a Spartan king, bristled at the exclusion of women from Olympic competition. Having inherited her father’s horses after his death, this wealthy princess, who certainly was aware of the rules against women even attending the Olympics, nonetheless decided to compete in the four-horse chariot race known as the tethrippon.

Kyniska knew that the victor’s prize in the tethrippon went to the owner of the horses, not the rider. She also understood that since women of independent wealth were a rarity in the Greek world, it would be assumed that the Spartan entry in the games of 396 BCE would be financed by a rich man.

There is no record of the judges’ reaction when they learned that a woman-owned team of horses had won the race. But Kyniska couldn’t be denied her place in history as the first woman to earn an Olympic victory (She won four years…

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Jeff Miller

A culture writer, I enjoy tugging at the sacred, profane, and prosaic threads that shape behavior and belief.