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In fact, this has been the story of mankind since the first written records appeared, in the form of ancient myths or legends.
ChatGPT may be threatening to change writing (and writing-related jobs) as we see it, but the Mesopotamians, who lived 4,000 years ago (the geographical area in present-day Iraq), experienced through this kind of dramatic change long before us. Their civilization is said to have invented writing.
Living in a time of change
Just two months after launching in November 2022, ChatGPT developed by OpenAI has reached an audience of over 100 million people. Large Language Modeling (LLM) captures the attention of users by its ability to give human-like answers to each question.
Reactions to ChatGPT and its competitors have varied, from warning about potential risks to extolling the huge benefits it can bring. We seem to be drowning in theories about how new advances in AI could change the way people work, learn, and live.
Ancient Mesopotamia was the birthplace of much of the development of civilization today. Their people are world leaders in adapting to technological and cultural change.
The Mesopotamians invented the wheel and agricultural farming, and pioneered advances in mathematics, urbanization, and transportation. These breakthroughs are reflected in cuneiform writing, one of the earliest known forms of written expression, around the 30th century BC.
The history of cuneiform is complex, but it seems that it was originally developed to record economic data, such as debts. Over time, however, the Mesopotamians expanded the use of clay inscriptions to record a variety of information in many languages.
Its applications are varied, from diplomatic correspondence, to omens, to some of the oldest literary masterpieces in the world.
Ancient heroes powered by technology
In Gilgamesh, the world’s earliest known epic, the hero of the same name invented and used technologies, such as diving weights or sails, to travel to the ends of the world.
As noted by Andrew George, an archaeologist who studies the ancient kingdom of Assyria, the young hero mentioned above has developed new technologies to help him in his quest for fame and immortality. These advances allowed him to engage in previously unknown activities, such as sailing and deep-sea diving.
Another royal hero from Mesopotamia – Lugalbanda was also honored with technological advancements. Lugalbanda improved the technique of making fires by using flints to burn embers and bake bread. The fact that the ancient heroes knew how to use the new tool showed their special ability.
Inventions and negative aspects
The Mesopotamian epic does not merely deal with the benefit of cultural and technological advances. In Gilgamesh, the benefits of civilization and urbanization, such as advances in wall technology, are juxtaposed with the negative effects they create, such as destruction of the environment and alienation from the wild world. .
Epics often refer to new technologies being exploited to the service of human conflict and disproportionately serving the interests of those of high social status.
In the Sumerian epics Enmerkar and The Lord of Aratta, the heroic king defeats his enemies by inventing and using transcendent technology: the ability to write on clay tablets.
This invention is said to be related to the Epic of Sargon, in which Sargon avoided a murder plot through his epic reading skills. Although writing on clay tablets was developed at that stage, the use of envelopes to conceal their contents was not yet (hence, good luck to Sargon!).
In one sense, the introduction of new technologies in cuneiform writing reflects contemporary concerns about AI: Concerns about increasing social inequality and its potential use in cyber warfare.
The future of history
Studying the past can help us deepen our understanding of how humans have adapted to modern technology over thousands of years. In contrast, 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 writing. For example, the Fragmentarium project uses sophisticated algorithms to determine which pieces of broken cuneiform text belong together; these algorithms predict the text that used to fill the missing parts. AI will likely continue to change the way historians analyze the past.
In the broader academic field, the boundaries of how AI can be used are still unclear. For example, in January, a leading international AI conference banned the use of AI tools for writing scientific articles – although its use in editing articles was accepted.
Consider the limits of technology
Even those who had adapted to early technology, the Mesopotamians, had problems that the technology of the time could not solve.
Climate change is believed to have led to the collapse of the Akkadian Empire, sometimes referred to as the world’s first multinational political entity. And even the cunning Gilgamesh could not escape his own death.
Humans have struggled with how to invent, use, and adapt to technology since our earliest civilizations. In Mesopotamian epic literature, new technology helps heroic individuals overcome accepted limits and develop new skills. However, the technology and knowledge gained are not always evenly distributed.
Learning how to adapt to technological changes in the past helps us to more fully understand the human condition today and can even help us prepare for the future.
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