The Link Between Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and AI

Frankenstein is one of the earliest representations of Artificial Intelligence

“None but those who have experienced them can conceive of the enticements of science… in scientific pursuit there is continual food for discovery and wonder.”

-Victor Frankenstein


There is an indisputable link between Victor Frankenstein’s creation (let’s try and veer away from the term monster), and Artificial Intelligence.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s narrative of the modern Prometheus has traveled through time and space, surpassing generations. For me, the classic tale of Frankenstein and his creation is timeless – in the true sense of the word. It cannot be bolted down. Bore from growing scientific circles of the Victorian era and the mind of an intellectually advanced teenage girl, it boasts post-modern sensibilities and futuristic ideals. There was a huge preoccupation with science fiction during this time, reflective of the rapid progress in early industrial, technological and scientific advancements. Faith in the Church was challenged by discoveries and theories like Darwin’s Theory of Evolution (1859). Questioning the fabric of what the majority of people at the time believed in creation and life itself. Frankenstein plays on these fears. A scientist playing god, a man creating a super-intelligent being – a being capable of things beyond human ability. It’s now, more relevant than ever, 200 years on.

The questions Shelley raises about a man-made being are relevant in the creation of AI. It explores the possibilities of Artificial General Intelligence and fears of the Singularity. There are many ethical concerns that link Frankenstein and AI too.

Shelley was exploring the ethics and morality of an artificially-made, super-intelligent being long before Vernor Vinge or Nick Bostrom.

In the introduction to Frankenstein, Shelley speaks of her nightmare inspiration. “I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for supremely frightful would be the effect of any human endeavor to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.” The iconography of artificial, man-made beings coming to life, rising up from the ‘slab’, has been replicated time and time again. Shows like Westworld, for example, have brought this trope to a new audience.

There could be a future where an AI holds consciousness and thought processing power far greater than humans. Shelley explores this way before the development of Machine Learning. Frankenstein’s creation learns language, and how to speak through a hole in a cottage wall where he secretly watches a family interact with one another. He is the very embodiment of machine intelligence. He learns like an algorithm throughout the novel.

In respect of Victor Frankenstein’s demise, it plays on the fears that AI could inevitably lead to our own destruction. It’s believed by some that the advent of the singularity will be a pivotal event in our future – where Artificial Intelligence and human intelligence are equal. This fleeting moment will soon pass as AI’s computing power and ability to learn at high speed will result in a growing intelligence – beyond human. Frankenstein’s creation does exactly this. His ability to process large amounts of information and learn so soon after his ‘birth’ into the world is much faster than that of a human.

Developing AI needs nurturing, like a developing child. It’s still in its infancy, and like Frankenstein’s creation – if left unsupervised, things can – and would – go very wrong. In a later chapter, Frankenstein’s creature reveals to Victor, “I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” The way a creation (whether a fictional monster or future Artificial Intelligent agent), operates is linked to the ‘nurturing’ of the creator.

Like his creation, AI is not inherently good or evil. It is how we build it and how we use it that will shape it’s very being.

It is our duty to ensure that the production of Artificial Intelligence is done so in an ethical and moral way. We need to confront the issues surrounding algorithmic bias and discrimination head-on. Many AI professionals and companies are already, and AI ethics have become a huge talking point and area of interest. The way in which Artificial Intelligence will shape our future is unknown. However, through works like Shelley’s, we are able to experience, reflect, and explore our future before it happens. Whilst Artificial Intelligence is a technological pursuit, literature is an extremely poignant way in which we can learn from our past in order to impact our future.

Interestingly, last year, the MIT Media Lab created a literary AI mash up of their own, inspired by none other than Mary Shelley. Powered by machine learning, Shelley AI is trained on thousands of horror stories, and a collection of super creepy stories from the r/nosleep reddit page. She then took to Twitter and engaged in story building with users who can interact with her initial story tweets.


You can see the collection here:

There is some poetry in the fact that Mary Shelley is kept alive as a distant relative to one of AI’s fictional ancestors that she created.

It’s really great to write about gothic literature and AI – and at what better time of year than with Halloween just around the corner? A large proportion of my Masters was in Gothic Literature so it’s nice to work this into my tech-focused day job! I really could go on, but it’s probably time to stop and go carve a pumpkin or something.

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