From fantasy to the inevitable

April 21, 2024

AI is like the lobotomised man, free of the neuroses of life — similar to the monster in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein

From fantasy to  the inevitable


he thought of being able to create an intelligent life has gone from if to when – from fantasy to the inevitable. Artificial Intelligence is like the lobotomised man, free of the complexity of the neurosis of life.

Many prominent thinkers today agree that we must explore the philosophical aspect of “playing god” – not only in the modern sense with the AI but more so the concept itself: what is our responsibility when we can create a life that feels and thinks autonomously?

In myth, we have Prometheus, the Greek Titan, who stole fire from the Gods and gave it to humanity and was then punished by being tied to a rock and having his liver repeatedly eaten by an eagle. Prometheus has been used to represent the human strife for scientific development at an unintended and callous cost, even when scientific progress was logarithmically slow compared to today.

For the first time in our history, we can no longer make unbiased predictions about future technology. In the 1800s, it was reasonable to say that the next 20 years would be almost the same as they are now. Now we’re clueless about what lies even five years ahead. Still, fantasies of wanting to play god have existed since the 1800s.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, published in 1818, was described as “one of the most masterfully written novels in the history of English literature.” Most of the screen adaptations of the book – fifty or so – are based on the 1931 film Frankenstein, which is quite different from the book. This is why the story most people are familiar with differs from the original. The other title for Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus.

In the original novel, Dr Victor Frankenstein is the scholar who creates the monster we now call Frankenstein. The book is not merely about creation but also about the idea of creation itself, the relationship between a creation and the creator; how mankind is structured; and what the responsibility of the creator is towards the suffering of its creation. The monster is given no name and is referred to by the Doctor as wretch or beast.

Dr Frankenstein is not a mad scientist; nor is he callous in his attitude. He is portrayed as curious, deeply intelligent and passionate about innovation and knowledge. Innovation without ethics becomes his flaw when he creates his monster without contemplating its consequences and responsibility. The novel hits on the real-world theme of humanity’s recklessness to develop and innovate while ignoring the suffering caused by that innovation. Climate change, animal suffering, poverty, loneliness, oppression, abuse, war and ignorance are the consequences of systems our species has developed over countless years. In the ecstasy of our passion, we forget to think.

As for the monster, he is strong and intelligent. His hunger to learn and to understand is comparable to that of a toddler. He learns to speak and to read and becomes conscious of the models of family man has made to live. But then he also becomes conscious of his suffering. He becomes neurotic, realising that he has no mother or father; no brothers or sisters; no partners and children. In his meaningless solitude, he becomes jealous and malicious towards man: “What crime have I committed to deserve such a fate?” He then becomes conscious of his creator.

Realising that he was rejected by the one responsible for his suffering, he wants revenge. His life, previously void of meaning, becomes devoted to the sadistic torment of his creator and he begins killing people. First he kills a child, then frames an innocent caretaker of the child; then a close companion of the Doctor; and finally the Doctor’s newlywed wife, Elizabeth.

After the death of his wife, the Doctor devotes himself till his last breath to the destruction of his malicious creation. The monster enjoys the cat-and-mouse chase. In the end the Doctor’s death buries his rage. Upon seeing his corpse, the monster promises that it will go to the most unreachable point in the Alps and destroy itself. Unanchored from the world, it sees no reason to exist.

What if the AI we make learns of the crimes against nature we’ve committed in the name of progress and seeks to annihilate us?

Frankenstein (1931) was the first adaptation of the story in film. Although drawing major inspiration from the novel, the film is different in its characterisation of the relationship between Dr Frankenstein and the monster. The movie is set much later than the 1700s and portrays the doctor as a mad scientist who, in the ecstasy of his science, becomes obsessed with the idea of creating life. He detaches himself from the world and moves into an old windmill on the outskirts of his town, accompanied only by his hunchback assistant Fritz.

This time, the monster’s malicious nature is attributed to the fact that, when finding corpses to stitch together to make the body, Fritz had stolen a malformed criminal brain that was naturally sadistic and violent. Unlike the book, the process of ‘how’ the monster was brought to life is shown: Galvanism.

In the year 1803, the corpse of an executed prisoner by the name of George Forster was electrocuted. Why? In those years, a new branch of science, called Galvanism, was born. It related to the electrical life force in all living things. The Times newspaper is reported to have said:

“On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eye was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched and the legs and thighs were set in motion.”

In the film, the monster’s first victim is the assistant Fritz, who, after being needlessly cruel to the creature, is murdered by it. Soon after, the doctor plans to put him down. On the eve of its destruction, the monster wakes up and strangles the man who was to discard it. The monster then comes across a girl and playfully throws her into a lake. She drowns.

This murder is different from the previous one. The monster is shown to regret his actions. Unlike Mary Shelley’s monster, this monster is portrayed as a child with the curse of unshakable brute strength and stature.

Near the end of the film, the monster ends up in the town where the townsfolk are celebrating the Doctor’s marriage, blissfully unaware of the terrible monster on the loose. Moving towards the Doctor’s house, the monster finds the Doctor’s newlywed wife, Elizabeth. He attacks her, but she survives.

The villagers become aware of the monster’s crimes and form a large mob to find and destroy the beast. The mob chases the monster all the way back to the roof of the old windmill. The monster grabs the Doctor and throws him off the windmill. However, he survives the fall. The mob sets the windmill on fire with the monster inside. Its corpse is never found.

In today’s age, films like Blade Runner 2049, A Space Odyssey and even some episodes of Star Trek ask very dense questions: is artificial life, like robots, sentient? Does it lack the spiritual or supernatural component that prevents it from being like us? Who will own the robots that companies make in the future? How closely does something need to replicate sentience until it is sentient?

Today, many people believe that as long as man has a metaphysical “soul” that defies all science and logic, he will never be replaced by “mere” machines. But if man is made merely of pattern-recognising biochemical systems, there is no reason to believe that inorganic systems cannot get infinitely better at pattern recognition.

Despite similar story beats, the themes in the book and movie are distinct. The movie’s monster is innocent and childlike till the end of the film. It is driven to violence by the cruelty it suffers from its abandonment and treatment at the hands of man.

Mary Shelley’s monster, however, is born pure and becomes cunning and sadistic. Both suffer from the hubris of Dr Frankenstein, their creator.

The leitmotifs in the stories hint at the destruction of humanity at the hands of a conscious, external threat. What if the AI we make learns of the crimes against nature we’ve committed in the name of progress and seeks to annihilate us?

Machines and robots are creatures “born without a soul” — they lack emotional responses to stimuli. When discussing technology, one often feels as though one must give disclaimers with every statement made: “for now,” “as of writing.”

The pace of technological development has gone beyond most people’s capacity to understand and control it. The fairytales of our ancestors are coming closer to reality. We must be at the forefront of such fields to prevent being overwhelmed by them.

If we do not play our role correctly, we will be the eventual instigator of our destruction.

The writer is a freelance journalist

From fantasy to the inevitable