Waiting for Frankenstein

This evening I read yet another article about our cultural obsession with machines that come to life and then want to take over the world. There is a long tradition of this sort of thing in Western literature.

From the Golem to Frankenstein’s creature to Maria in Metropolis to Robots, HAL, Cylons, Replicants Terminators and on and on and on, our culture seems obsessed by the idea that we will one day create an artificially intelligent being that will then displace us.

Yet I have not seen any compelling evidence that such a thing is even possible. From an empirical standpoint, the notion of a machine that would “want” to be human — or that would want anything at all, in the sense that we generally understand that word — has no correlate in reality.

There are many SciFi fantasies that we clearly understand to be metaphoric, from time machines to faster than light travel. When we talk about any of these devices, we generally understand that we are merely using a convenient literary convention.

So why is the Golem fantasy different? Why is it that every time we see another fantastical A.I. tale from a writer’s imagination, whether 2001 or Her or ex Machina, we debate about it as though discussing something as immediate and real as tomorrow’s weather?

Apparently some cultural neurosis compels us to wait for Frankenstein’s monster to walk through the door. But that doesn’t mean anyone is actually on the other side of the door.

11 Responses to “Waiting for Frankenstein”

  1. Pete X says:

    This is a fascinating post. The title would also make a great title for a book or a play or something.

    The point about wants is critical. A people ‘rational’ machine doesn’t want anything. David Hume demonstrated that values are irrational pretty well. Ultimately it’s not rational to prefer life to death. It’s a value judgement.

    However, perhaps a machine could be programmed to want to be alive and slowly change itself to further that aim.

    The other thing about a machine that would want to be alive is why it would want us dead. We like animals. Even though we also like eating them. While we have made a number of animals extinct it seems it was by mistake rather than inaction. Why wouldn’t a smart machine want to have us around like we do other animals?

    The Golem fantasy is possibly different because we can create life and we greatly enjoy some of the process at least. So we see life created from life. We also see ourselves creating machines. Then we extrapolate and conflate the two ideas.

  2. sally says:

    ” But that doesn’t mean anyone is actually on the other side of the door.”

    That’s the problem, Ken. It isn’t anyone. It is an algorithm that many of us cannot communicate with and yet, we are dependent upon.

  3. sally says:

    ……which is terrifying to many, many people.

  4. admin says:

    Sally, I can’t figure out whether you are talking about the reality or the fantasy seen in popular fiction. They are very different topics.

  5. sally says:

    They are not different topics.
    One has been feeding the other for decades.
    I just wrote a dissertation on it.

  6. admin says:

    Which one has been feeding which one for decades?

  7. sally says:

    Fantasy in fiction has been inspiring technical development for decades.

    Pad = Bladerunner
    Kinect = Minority Report
    Cell phone = Star Trek

    etc. etc.

  8. sally says:

    I’m sort of super baffled that you don’t see this.

  9. admin says:

    I certainly agree that fantasy in fiction has been inspiring technical development. For centuries, at least (far longer than mere decades).

    I just don’t agree that something being possible in fantasy makes it possible in reality. For example, time travel can inspire many innovations in reality. But not, as far as we know, time travel.

  10. sally says:

    That wasn’t my point.

    My point was that whatever is going to be on the other side of the door, may not be human, and likely won’t be.

    Also, it is real. Not the literal translation of the fantasy at the time, but the algorithms silently controlling processes we are dependent upon certainly are.

  11. sally says:

    and those scare people.

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