Quirks & Quarks

Frankenstein has lessons about artificial intelligence, child psychology and more

Frankenstein: How a Monster Became an Icon. Edited by Dr. Sidney Perkowitz and Dr. Eddy Von Mueller
Frankenstein's monster made famous in movies by Boris Karloff was inspired by Mary Shelley's gothic novel from 1818 (Universal Studios)

Just as the book Frankenstein has never gone out of print, the idea of reanimating life or duplicating the origins of life has never gone away. But two centuries after it was written, the science of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein may provide a few warnings for the science of today.  

In the classic 1931 movie Frankenstein, the monster is brought to life. The movie was inspired by Shelley's gothic novel Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus, which was published in 1818.  

The novel actually began two years earlier as a ghost story told to her husband and friends on a stormy night in a villa on the shores of Lake Como in Italy.  Shelley was only 18 at the time. 

She drew on her imagination, stories from her own life, as well science to create a tale about a tormented creature. It is a tale that has endured to this day.  

The impact of Frankenstein on popular culture is phenomenal; it has inspired countless movies — both horror and comedy, music, art, video games, breakfast cereals, cartoons, costumes and much more.  

The new book Frankenstein: How A Monster Became an Icon; The Science and Enduring Allure of Mary Shelley's Creation. It is a collection of essays and interviews compiled by film professor Eddy Von Mueller, and Sidney Perkowitz, a science writer and professor emeritus of physics at Emory University in Atlanta.  

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Bob McDonald: In the science and the ethics part of your book it's suggested that Shelley's Frankenstein is both a celebration of the discoveries of her times and a cautionary tale for our times. How so? 

Dr. Sidney Perkowitz: I think that's maybe the most important part of the book from the viewpoint of how society should look at it today. She didn't have modern science, but she certainly had a story about ethics that resonates today, and it resonates more than it did in her time because in her time stitching together body parts and applying a jolt of electricity and thereby creating or reanimating life was still a pure dream. Now we are at the point where we think we can manipulate biology to the point where at least we can change ourselves and maybe even create new beings. So the ethical story that she told really has meaning today in a way that it could not yet have 200 years ago. 

BM: Well we do live in a world of scientific achievement. I mean we've got gene editing, we can manipulate DNA, we have artificial intelligence, machine learning and there's even there's even a plan to do the world's first head transplant. I mean are there lessons and warnings from Frankenstein that we should heed here?

SP: Yes I think the lesson is clear and it goes back to the moment in the film where Dr. Frankenstein sees that he's created a being and is overcome partly with amazement that he could do it; partly with fear. And one of his lines that has resonated forever is he says 'Now I know what it feels like to be God.' So I think the warning is to be a little careful about how arrogant we are in our new biology. What should we do? That's not always the same as saying what can we do. We need to stop and think about the difference between what we can do and what we really should be thinking about doing. And that applies across the board to everything you mention whether it's A-I, gene editing or even transplanting heads. So we need to stop and think is this what humanity needs? Is this what society needs? 

(Penguin Random House Canada)

BM: If Shelley was to tell a ghost story in 2018, 200 years after Frankenstein, what do you think the monster in her story would be today?

SP: Now that's a really great question and I think what she would seize on because I see her as a very smart person, very attuned to the currents of her time even though she was still a teenager when she wrote the book, which has always amazed me. What she would seize on now would maybe be A-I. Maybe the modern version of Dr. Frankenstein would be a computer literate person, maybe even a computer nerd of some sort who decided to build the world's best and brightest A-I and how that went in a bad direction rather than a good direction. 

BM: So we have the robot, the intelligent robot taking over the world kind-of thing? 

SP: That is the image. Now I hasten to say that I personally, despite what many people are saying, do not think that's anywhere in the near future. A-I has gotten a lot of attention but it's a long way to go before it can be self-directing or even have the emotions that would say 'I want to threaten humanity.' But it's a possibility down the road. And the way to think about technology is when the technology is new, not after it's established and then it's too late to change anything. 

BM: But let's hope that if we do create intelligent machines they'll be more like Data from Star Trek rather than the Terminator. 

SP: Everyone loves Data and part of the reason they love him is because he spends so much of his time and effort trying to emulate us. He wants to become more human. So it's a bit like a parent taking pride in his or her own child when the child says daddy or mommy I wanna be just like you. That's kind of what Data is doing and we respond to that very deeply. 

BM: Dr. Perkowitz, thank you very much for your time. 

SP: It's been my pleasure. Great questions and I hope people will let Frankenstein help them think about where the 21st century is going.