Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Quest

Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
Mary Shelley's book is currently experiencing a minor revival, appearing in the syllabus of my daughter's English class, and on a recent must-read list. While not on a par with Oprah's book list, these two appearances signify relevance to today's reader. This is reinforced by a recent newspaper headline from The Sunday Times:

Hopes of custom-built organs as scientists create beating heart

What Shelley wrote as science fiction in 1818 is becoming science fact in the 21st century.

The hubris of Victor Frankenstein in assuming the mantle of creator is explicit throughout the book, most prominently in its subtitle. Like Prometheus, Victor also is punished for his action. Or is he punished for his reaction?

The horror, the horror.

The aspect of Frankenstein which interests me most is the awakening of Victor's creation. Prior to this moment, Victor is in awe of his creation:
"His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful!"

But at its awakening, Victor describes this vision:
"... I saw the dull, yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs."
Then, immediately: "... the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart."

What caused such a rapid turnaround? Was Victor delusional, snapping out of it at the completion of his work? Another possible explanation is suggested by the proposition of the
uncanny valley.

The creature at first is so unlike a living human that it is viewed on its own terms, appearing beautiful in form, like Michaelangelo's David. With its first breath, the creature takes a step closer towards human appearance, but not close enough, its visage slipping into the uncanny valley. It appears near-human, but twisted, an abomination. Perhaps this is what jars Victor from his delusion. Would we not be similarly unsettled if we saw the statue of David suddenly come to life?

Victor abandons his creation, who matures in alienation from humankind, then returns to haunt Victor's life. The creature has superhuman intelligence, superhuman strength, and an affinity for Victor such that Victor cannot hide from nor escape from it. Victor loses his youngest brother, the brother's caregiver, his best friend, his father, and his bride to the creature's vengeance.
In the mountains high above Chamonix the creature forces an encounter with Victor and proposes an accommodation:
"I am thy creature, and I will be even mild and docile to my natural lord and king if thy wilt also perform thy part...I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous."

The creature knows that it will never be accepted by humankind and is asking Victor to create a female to be its companion. Victor initially agrees, but then realizes that the female will be an independent, sentient being, not bound to the male creature nor to its promise of virtue, possibly not beholden in any way to Victor or to humankind. Worse, the pair could beget a race of supercritters without any compunction in destroying humankind.

What do we learn from Frankenstein? Not to fool with Mother Nature? That genii is long out of the bottle with the release of atomic energy and discovery of the genetic code. It is our nature to open the bottle, take the consequences and transcend them. But another tipping point lies in our immediate future, one that Victor Frankenstein would surely dread.

Ray Kurzweil predicts that by the year 2029 we will have the ability to create a Turing machine, having intellectual and emotional intelligence indistinguishable from human (
BBC). Intelligence will develop exponentially at that point, not bound by human biological limitations. One generation of machines will design and build the next. But what of us? We will build the first generation, bound with allegiance to mankind. But which generation of machine will be so far removed from human origin that this bond will be broken? If they are kindly towards us, they will care for our well-being and keep us ignorant of how far behind them we are.

Victor Frankenstein might be wrong to dread the future beyond this tipping point. Mankind is shaped by the actions of man and this may continue into this future. I recommend a short story, "Forgetfulness," by John W. Campbell, Jr., writing as Don A. Stuart, for an outcome where biological man comes out on top. Read "Robot's Return," by Robert Moore Williams, for an outcome where machines discover their long-extinct human progenitors.

The Destination
The journey counts more than the destination, but if we jump ahead to one particular terminus of the path, we find the writing of English philosopher Douglas Adams (1952-2001):

The Answer to the Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything Is Forty-two.

Unfortunately, the Great Question as posed was ill-defined, so the answer standing alone means nothing. Adams writes further that Earth was created for the purpose of formulating a precise statement of the Ultimate Question, which in time was found to be


More succinctly,

6 x 9 = 42

Not having traveled this path ourselves, the result means little to us. We can say that its truth depends critically on BASE 13. This is intuitively obvious to the most casual observer. This connection may explain the taboo concerning the number 13: we may have been discouraged from exploring too deeply all things thirteen. Beyond this triviality, there is no other shortcut to our destination. We must return to the path, so I end here for now.

- L.T.