I recently read a series of online articles that illustrate how the USA, Europe and China intend to introduce artificial intelligence (AI) to Africa to solve various problems. My immediate reaction was to find the suggestion of AI being introduced to Africa as questionable. I reasoned that, in the past, the West and East have not credited Africa and African people for their contributions to the technology we enjoy today. So, I started to research the origins of AI.
I traced the earliest accounts of AI to the lore of the West and East. In the West, in 8th century BC, the ancient Greeks spoke of Hephaestus, the god of fire and metalwork. Hephaestus is believed to have created living metal robots. In the East, Indian lore speaks of robot warriors who protected Buddha’s prized artefacts. After some time, the lore seems to have inspired the manufacture of the first robots.
The production of robots had become a trend in the Western world. Ancient Greek technologists were impressively skilled in mechanics and metalwork. An example of their skill is the 5th century BC Olympic Games that boasted bronze robots. From the 5th to 1st century BC, the Western world manufactured many more robots.
In circa 850AD, the Western world inspired the Byzantine Empire and Arab nations to develop their form of robots. The Royal Society explains that this caused a decline in manufacturing in the West during the Medieval period. They narrate that when the Western world discovered that the East had started to build robots, manufacturing in the West plummeted. After the discovery, robots were widely associated with foreignness, suspicion, and wonder.
The mainstream history of technology does not indicate a direct link between AI and Africa. I can only attribute the lack of a connection to the erasure of the relevant African history. In other words, colonisers violently erased our ancestors’ dreams and thoughts on AI from history. However, in deep corners of the internet, I found a database of African history writers who illuminated the link. They share historical accounts of Africa that do not form part of school and university history curricula. Based on their work, there is a strong possibility that the West and East absorbed lore from Africa, thus incorporating African stories into Western and Eastern historical narratives.
Since about 12,000 years ago, the Yoruba people of West Africa have worshipped Ogun, a primordial orisha of iron, technology, and creative intelligence. Further, through the power of their ancestors, the Yoruba people were able to inflict harm on their enemies through robot-like warrior spirits called Shigidi. Moreover, in 17th century Benin, the royal palaces were decorated with bronze automatons known as ‘the Benin Bronzes’.
Current literature indicates that the ancients Greeks painted images of Nubian Africans in Greece from around the 14th century BC. The research raises two critical points. First, Africans were in Greece almost 500 years before the first written accounts of AI. Secondly, there must have been some assimilation between African and Greek lore, which explains the similarities between the deities. Also, it seems too coincidental that the Ifa tradition, which is the central religious belief system of the Yoruba people, is based on binary code. Intriguingly, binary code also serves as the foundation of mainstream Computer Science (including AI research).
Knowing that a tangible link exists between the first dreams of AI and Africa, it is highly likely that we were the original inspiration for the AI we have today.