Adapting to technological advancements is a defining part of life in the 21st century. But it is not unique to us: it has been part of the human story 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 4000 years ago (in a geographic area centered in modern-day Iraq), has gone through this kind of seismic change for us. Their civilization is credited with the invention of writing.
Living in changing times
Just two months after launching in November 2022, OpenAI’s ChatGPT has already reached an audience of more than 100 million people.
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The large language model (LLM), also known as “autocomplete on steroids”, has drawn attention to his ability to create human-like responses to questions. His work has received sufficient marks university law and business examsand has been used in a Colombian court to assist decide on a legal decision.
Comments on ChatGPT and its competitors wavered between recognizing the potential risks of the chatbot and its pricing possible benefits. We are inundated with theories about how new developments in AI could change the way we work, study and live.
Ancient Mesopotamia was home to many of civilization’s early developments. The people were world leaders in adapting to technological and cultural change.
Mesopotamians invented the wheel and agriculture, and pioneered mathematics, urbanization, and transportation. These breakthroughs are reflected in cuneiform literature, one of the oldest known forms of writing.
The history of cuneiform is complex, but it seems to have initially developed to record economic data, such as outstanding debts. Over time, however, the Mesopotamians broadened their use of glyphs inscribed on clay tablets to record a variety of information, in numerous languages. New uses include everything from diplomatic correspondence to omens, to some of the world’s oldest literary masterpieces.
In the world’s earliest known written epic, Gilgameshthe eponymous hero is shown inventing and using technologies, such as dive weights and a sail, to continue his journey to the edges of the world – and beyond.
As noted by Assyriologist Andrew George, the young hero develops new technologies to facilitate his quest for fame and immortality. This advancement allows him to engage in previously unknown activities, such as sailing and scuba diving.
Another royal hero from Mesopotamia, Lugalbanda (sometimes known for his super speed) is also credited with technological advancement. Lugalbanda improves the technique of lighting fires by using flint to kindle embers and bake bread. The heroes’ use of new tools emphasizes their exceptionality.
Inventions and obscurity
Mesopotamian epics fail to present cultural and technological advances as unequivocally and uniformly beneficial. In Gilgamesh, the benefits of civilization and urbanization, such as advances in wall-building technology, are juxtaposed with their costs, such as environmental destruction and alienation of wildlife.
Indeed, the epics often represent new technologies harnessed in the service of human conflict – disproportionately serving the interests of those of high social status. In the Sumerian epic Enmerkar and the Lord of Arattathe heroic king defeats his enemy by inventing and using superior technology: the ability to write on clay tablets.
This invention is also believed to be referenced in the Epic of Sargon, where Sargon seems to evade an assassination attempt through his epic reading skills. The text notes that writing on tablets had been developed at that stage, but the use of envelopes to conceal its contents had not yet happened (perhaps fortunately for Sargon).
The future of history
Studying the past can deepen our understanding of how humans have adapted to modern technology over thousands of years. Conversely, modern technology continues to broaden our understanding of history.
In recent years, AI – the newest form of writing – has been used to decipher the oldest: cuneiform literature. The Fragmentarium Projectfor example, uses advanced algorithms to determine which fragments of shattered cuneiform texts belong together; these algorithms predict the text that once filled the missing sections.
AI is likely to continue to change the way historians analyze the past. This requires new considerations around known issues, such as how to accurately represent the past in the face of potentially biased evidence, and the need to critically evaluate sources of information.
In the broader field of academia, the boundaries of how AI can be used are not yet clearly explained. For example, an international AI summit in January banned the use of AI tools for writing scientific papers – although its use in paper editing was accepted.
Given the limits of technology
Even those early tech adaptors, the Mesopotamians, ran into problems that the technology of the day couldn’t solve.
It is believed that climate change has led to the downfall of the Akkadian Empire, referred to as the world’s first multinational political entity. And not even cunning Gilgamesh could escape his own mortality.
Humans have struggled to invent, use and adapt to technology since our earliest civilizations. In the epic literature of Mesopotamia, new technology helps heroic individuals travel beyond accepted limitations and develop new skills. But the technology and the resulting knowledge do not always evenly distributed.
Knowing how we’ve adapted to changing technology in the past helps us better understand the human condition — and can even help us prepare for the future.