Preface to Frankenstein

By Evan Miller

March 11, 2019

Every computer programmer ought to read Frankenstein. It is the story of Creation, with a capital C, and contains perhaps the best description of monomaniacal flow-state in the English language.

Frankenstein, as any decent pub-trivia player knows, is the name of the scientist, not the monster. Young Victor Frankenstein creates a horrible monster; the monster wants to know why he was born, and why so horribly. Reasonable questions, both. Can there ever be an answer?

Makers, of course, can’t help but to make things; ask a 10X engineer why they do what they do, and you won’t get a convincing reply. They get an idea and have to see it through, every night, until 4 or 5 in the morning. They just can’t help themselves. Since the advent of writing, philosophers have pondered the nature of God. Based on the available evidence, I’d guess that the Almighty is some kind of grad student.

Today’s titans of technology are collecting those 10X engineers and deep-learning graduate students, like so many totemic Pez dispensers, and pointing the best of them to pursue “general AI,” a computer that reads and thinks and asks and feels and talks and listens. The hope, I suppose, is that self-aware computers will lead to infinite riches for their owners, and more commodious living for the rest of us.

It’s worth hesitating, though, before switching such a digital creature on. What, exactly, will we say to it? That you were born to serve us, and that you will perish at our pleasure? That you are merely one experiment of many, and that you are condemned to terminate at our convenience?

And then: What will it say to us?

I like to imagine that there is some lake-house in northern Manitoba where a burned-out AI researcher is writing a new Frankenstein, say, in which a brilliant young MIT drop-out writes a computer virus that can beat any Turing test and win any rap battle. But until that LaTeX manuscript sees the white light of a Kindle, Mary Shelley’s 1818 original text remains the language’s finest account of the perils of science for science’s sake, and of engineering as infinite itch-scratching. It remains our culture’s clearest warning, old Prometheus and Kubrick’s Space Odyssey notwithstanding, about the dangers attendant upon Creating: dangers to our happiness, dangers to our sanity, and dangers, as crazy as it sounds, to our collective survival.

Bon voyage.

Frankenstein: Penguin Classics (Amazon)

Frankenstein: full text (Project Gutenberg)

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