Adapting to technological advances is a crucial part of life in the 21st century. But it is not unique to us: it has been part of human history since our earliest written records – even in the storylines of ancient myths and legends.
While ChatGPT threatens to change writing (and writing-related work) as we know it, the Mesopotamians who lived 4,000 years ago (in a geographic area centered in modern-day Iraq) have this type of seismic Change gone through before us. Their civilization is credited with inventing writing.
The Mesopotamians are credited with inventing writing. The city of Babylon, whose ruins are pictured here, was a center of Mesopotamian culture. Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY
Living in times of change
Just two months after launching in November 2022, OpenAI’s ChatGPT has already reached an audience of over 100 million people.
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The Large Language Model (LLM), sometimes referred to as “autocomplete on steroids,” has attracted attention for its ability to provide human-like responses to queries. His work has passed law and business school exams and has been used in a Colombian court to help decide a court sentence.
Responses to ChatGPT and its competitors have vacillated between recognizing the chatbot’s potential risks and praising its potential benefits. We are inundated with theories of how new advances in AI could transform the way we work, learn and live.
Ancient Mesopotamia was home to many of the early developments of civilization. Its people have been world leaders in adapting to technological and cultural change.
The Mesopotamians invented the wheel and agriculture, and pioneered mathematics, urbanization, and transportation. These breakthroughs are reflected in cuneiform, one of the oldest known forms of writing.
The history of cuneiform is complex, but it appears to have originally evolved to record economic data such as B. Debts to record. Over time, however, the Mesopotamians expanded their use of characters engraved on clay tablets to record a variety of information in numerous languages. New uses have included everything from diplomatic correspondence to omen texts to some of the world’s oldest literary masterpieces.
In the world’s earliest known written epic, Gilgamesh, the eponymous hero is shown inventing and using technologies such as diving weights and a sail to continue his journey to the edges of the world – and beyond.
Mesopotamian epics feature numerous battles, some using technology such as advanced weaponry. Wikimedia Commons
As noted by Assyriologist Andrew George, the young hero develops new technologies to aid in his quest for glory and immortality. These advances allow him to engage in previously unknown activities such as sailing and deep sea diving.
Another royal hero from Mesopotamia, Lugalbanda (sometimes known for his super speed) is also credited with technological advances. Lugalbanda improves on the technique of starting fires, using flint to ignite embers and bake bread. The use of new tools by the heroes underlines their exceptionality.
Inventions and Ambiguity
Mesopotamian epics do not clearly and consistently present cultural and technological advances as beneficial. In Gilgamesh, the benefits of civilization and urbanization, such as advances in wall-building technology, are offset by their costs—such as environmental degradation and alienation from the wild.
In fact, the epics often represent new technologies placed at the service of human conflict – and which disproportionately serve the interests of people of high social status. In the Sumerian epic Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta, the heroic king defeats his enemy by inventing and using a superior technology: the ability to write on clay tablets.
This invention is also believed to be mentioned in the Epic of Sargon, where Sargon appears to evade an attempted assassination through his epic reading skills. The text notes that while writing on tablets had been developed by this point, using envelopes to conceal their contents had not (perhaps fortunately for Sargon).
In a way, the presentation of new technologies in cuneiform literature reflects contemporary concerns about AI: fears of rising social inequality and its potential use in cyberwarfare.
In Gilgamesh, the benefits of civilization and urbanization are offset by their costs, such as environmental degradation. This clay tablet is inscribed with part of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Zukir/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY
The future of history
Studying the past can deepen our understanding of how humans have adapted to modern technology over millennia. Conversely, modern technology continues to expand our understanding of history.
In recent years, AI – the newest form of writing – has been used to decipher the oldest: cuneiform literature. The Fragmentarium project, for example, uses sophisticated algorithms to determine which fragments of shattered cuneiform text belong together; These algorithms predict the text that once filled the missing sections.
AI will likely continue to change the way historians analyze the past. This requires new thinking on familiar issues – such as how to accurately represent the past in the face of potentially biased evidence and the need to critically evaluate information sources.
In the wider academic field, the limits of the use of AI have not yet been clearly clarified. For example, in January, a top-level international AI conference banned the use of AI tools for writing academic papers — although their use in editing papers was accepted.
Taking into account the limits of technology
Even these early tech adaptors, the Mesopotamians, encountered problems that the technology of the time could not solve.
Climate change is believed to have led to the fall of the Akkadian Empire, sometimes credited as the world’s first multinational political entity. And even the wily Gilgamesh could not escape his own mortality.
Humans have grappled with how to invent, use, and adapt to technology since our earliest civilizations. In Mesopotamian epic literature, new technology helps heroic people push beyond accepted boundaries and develop new abilities. But the technology and the resulting knowledge are not always evenly distributed.
Knowing how we’ve adapted to technological change in the past helps us better understand the human condition—and can even help us prepare for the future.
Louise Pryke, Honorary Research Associate, University of Sydney
This article was republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.