King Midas: An Ancient AI Allegory

King Midas Artificial Intelligence Allegory

King Midas was a King of Phrygia, a dominant kingdom in Asia Minor from around 1200–700 BC. He thought quite a lot of himself apparently, and boasted that anything he touched would turn to gold. Perhaps he was speaking metaphorically, but he goes down in mythology as a supernatural character whose touch would literally turn anything into literal gold.

Obviously, this becomes super annoying. You don’t want your food and drink to turn to gold. As a kid I always thought they left out other important details. Like, when Midas is trying to poo and the sides of his bum touch the poo and it turns solid before he’s fully evacuated. That’s where my child mind went. (I also had issues with The Invisible Man and gastrointestinal realities.)

Adult me realises the point of the story didn’t require storytellers get into the scatalogical details. We can infer.

Did any of this happen? At all? Obviously not the magical part.

The truth is, we know very little about this king. Did he have a son? Maybe. Was the son called Lityerses or Anchurus? Who knows. He might have had a daughter instead, called Zoë.

According to legend, Midas didn’t become king because his father, father’s father and father’s father’s father were kings. No, he was just a handsome and valiant guy of ordinary background and happened to be riding past the right people in a cart right after an oracle told the people that a king would be brought to them in a wagon. (Cart, wagon, I couldn’t tell you the difference.)

If this is your route to ruling a kingdom, no wonder you wind up thinking that anything you touch turns to gold. I mean, how’s that for luck?

Depending on the version, Alexander the Great is involved somehow, as is the Gordion Knot and the Oracle of Delphi… it gets confusing.

Let’s stick to Ovid’s version.


In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the story of King Midas goes like this:

  • Dionysus, god of wine-making and all the good stuff, realises his father Silenus is missing. Oh yes, the father is a satyr (a nature spirit with a permanent boner).
  • As you might expect as a man whose son and companion is the god of wine-making, Silenus has wandered away drunk.
  • Phrygian peasants find the drunk guy and take him to their king.
  • Yep, the king is Midas.
  • Or maybe Silenus made his own way to the palace and passed out in the king’s rose garden. Depends who you ask.
  • Midas recognises Silenus and hosts him back to health. People used to make long visits back then, and Silenus was with Midas for ten days (and ten nights, though I think we can assume the nights).
  • Silenus makes for a fun guests—he sings songs, tells lots of yarns. With King Midas you’ve got a constant party, and Silenus is the party type.
  • After ten days have passed, King Midas delivers Silenus back to Dionysus.
  • Dionysus is a god but Midas is only a king, remember? Dionysus offers Midas a reward. Anything he wants.
  • Midas requests that anything he touches should turn to gold.
  • At first he’s delighted, of course.
  • Until it’s time to eat and drink.

In Aristotle’s version, King Midas dies of starvation, as we can probably deduce.

I hadn’t given the story of King Midas much thought until very recently, when news feeds started to fill up with talk about artificial intelligence. The story of King Midas—and related stories about genies—are about supernatural beings who basically act like AI. We tell them what to do, but forget to tell them what not to do. Midas forgot to tell Dionysus that he only wanted the power to turn everything into gold. He needed the ability to turn the ability off and on at his own discretion.


There’s a story about a robot who makes dinner for a family and ends up cooking the family cat. Referring to that example, artificial intelligence expert Peter J. Scott says this:

These hypothetical instances might arise because we didn’t give AI enough of an ethical and moral grounding to realise that those are decisions we wouldn’t want it to make. Yet we know we could never think of everything that it should — and especially shouldn’t — do. This, in AI, is called The Value Alignment Problem.

It’s the same story as the legend of King Midas. Genies and AIs do not have empathy for us and so make decisions that can be literal but harmful.

But if AI had empathy, or we felt that it had empathy, then I suggest that could make up for that shortfall.

Should AI Be Able To Feel? Monday 19 June 2023, Peter J. Scott

Scott goes on to draw a distinction between the sorts of tasks that would benefit from AI empathy and those that wouldn’t. For instance, if we’re requiring robots to sort rubbish all day, it would be an act of cruelty to then make that robot sentient. (Which should really get us thinking about what we’re asking of humans, and how we recompense those who do society’s most unpleasant, though mind-numbing tasks.)

He also reminds us of the true meaning of ‘sentience’—’sentient’ does not simply mean ‘conscious’ or ‘intelligent’, it means ‘able to feel’.


Stanford researcher examines earliest concepts of artificial intelligence, robots in ancient myths at Stanford News


On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




error: Content is protected