Oct 10 2011

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Seven Ways Frankenstein Relates to Singularity

Frankenstein can be happy too.

Ever notice how when you are thinking of buying a blue car, you start seeing blue cars everywhere you go? Ever since I’ve been studying the various meanings and implications of the Singularity I find myself experiencing the same phenomenon – case in point, a play I’ve recently went to see.  

I’m not usually a play goer, but I went to see Frankenstein last week and I’ll be going to another play next week starring Daniel Ratcliffe.   The play Frankenstein is based on the classic book by Mary Shelley which was actually written in 1818.  What I found remarkable was the number of familiar themes in the telling of Frankenstein and themes in the Singularity.

1)      Shelley’s book Frankenstein was written in an era of scientific discovery and excitement in particular electricity and the book became a real phenomena.

2)      The main story of Frankenstein involves creating an artificial life form by assembling body parts and then adding a magical electrical jolt to reanimate the creation. Currently, regenerative medicine is well along in the area of growing new organs for eventual transplant. (by the way, Shelley’s idea of reanimation via electricity came from her exposure to Galvani’s work – see below)

This illustration, from Galvani’s De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari, published in 1791, shows the experimental setup Galvani used to study the effect of atmospheric electricity on dead frogs.

from Galvani’s De Viribus Electricitatis in Motu Musculari, published in 1791, shows the experimental setup Galvani used to study the effect of atmospheric electricity on dead frogs. The inspiration of Shelley's "Frankenstein"

 3)      In the story the scientist Victor Frankenstein has a friend who’s very impressed by the implications of Frankenstein’s experimentation. He postulates that organ transplants could be useful in life extension

4)      Dr. Frankenstein, the creator of the monster (who by the way never is actually given a name in the book) is aghast at his creation and wrestles with the ethical dilemma around creating life not unlike the debate we can currently read about with regard to Craig Venter’s recent creation of a synthetic life form.

5)      The Frankenstein monster can be seen as an example of an enhanced human (cyborg) or perhaps an artificial intelligent life form.

6)      Like concerns over artificial intelligence possibly becoming unfriendly, likewise Dr. Frankenstein is obsessed with the destructive capacity of his creation – and tries to kill it.

7)      Even though the Frankenstein monster isn’t human, because it can talk and appears intelligent and appears to have emotions, people interact with the artificial lifeform as if it were human, with the exception of its creator Dr. Frankenstein.

Eventually the monster develops a self-identity so much so that it rejects the idea of being destroyed and wants Victor Frankenstein to create a female companion. One of the famous lines of the monster in the book and also used in the play is, “You are my creator, but I am your master. Obey!”  If you are familiar with the concerns over greater than human intelligence, this will sound familiar.

As you can see there are many similar Singularity-related issues that we are currently grappling with in life extension, genetics, artificial intelligence, biotechnology that resonate with the themes in Frankenstein…or maybe I’m just seeing things.

I am really looking forward to attending the Singularity Summit later this month in New York City. While there, I’ll be seeing my next play – this one starring Daniel Radcliffe the famous actor who played Harry Potter. In the Harry Potter books, we can see two coexisting worlds; that of  Wizards and Witches, and that of the ordinary Muggles.  I’m already thinking about the Singularity-related issue of enhanced humans and those that choose to remain non-enhanced…Help!!  Blue Cars Everywhere!!

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