Ed Finn: So, thank you all for com­ing. My name is Ed Finn. I am the Director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. I’m also the Academic Director of Future Tense, which is a part­ner­ship between ASU, the New America Foundation, and Slate mag­a­zine that explores emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies and their trans­for­ma­tive effects on soci­ety and pub­lic pol­i­cy. Central to that part­ner­ship is a series of events in Washington DC and New York City, and a blog on Slate.

In addi­tion to the reg­u­lar edi­to­r­i­al con­tent we have on Slate, we also have launched Futurography, a hybrid of jour­nal­ism and dig­i­tal learn­ing where every month we choose a new tech­nol­o­gy or idea and break it down, ask­ing about the state of the sci­ence, invit­ing experts to reflect on what’s hap­pen­ing, and what the major themes in the pol­i­cy and research debates are. And our theme for January is The Spawn of Frankenstein,” fun­ni­ly enough. You can fol­low today’s con­ver­sa­tion with the hash­tag #ItsAlive, and fol­low Future Tense on Twitter at @FutureTenseNow.

As you saw from the doc­u­men­tary footage of our recent edi­to­r­i­al meet­ing, our work on a new edi­tion of the nov­el for sci­en­tists, engi­neers, and cre­ators of all kinds is forth­com­ing in May from MIT Press. My coed­i­tor Dave Guston will be here later—he’s the fun­ny one.

Housekeeping items, please silence your cell phones. We’re livestream­ing this event, so please ask the audi­ence (That is you. I’m read­ing my notes.) to wait for the micro­phone before you ask your ques­tion. And please make your ques­tion in the form of a ques­tion, with a ques­tion mark at the end of the ques­tion. And most impor­tant­ly, please stick around after the pro­gram because we will be hav­ing drinks. Yay!

So, we called this event The Spawn of Frankenstein.” Mary Shelley’s nov­el has been an incred­i­bly suc­cess­ful mod­ern myth. And so this con­ver­sa­tion today is not just about what hap­pened 200 years ago, but the remark­able ways in which that moment and that set of ideas has con­tin­ued to per­co­late and evolve and reform in cul­ture, in tech­no­log­i­cal research, in ethics, since then.

In February of 1817, Mary Shelley was 19 years old. She was fin­ish­ing up the first draft of her book. She’d giv­en birth to two kids, I believe, and lost one of them already. And she was an incred­i­bly unusu­al per­son in her time. She had a very unusu­al upbring­ing. And the nov­el that she wrote reflects that. It brings in all of these cutting-edge, excit­ing, rev­o­lu­tion­ary things that were hap­pen­ing, such as the French Revolution. It brings in her bizarre upbring­ing as the some­what benignly-neglected child of athe­ist philoso­pher rad­i­cal free thinker William Godwin and the loom­ing shad­ow of her moth­er Mary Wollstonecraft. Their home was vis­it­ed by the lead­ing intel­lec­tu­als of the day, and she brought in chem­istry, elec­tric­i­ty, med­ical sci­ence, all of these rapidly-changing fields into her work. And in many ways it was a philo­soph­i­cal exer­cise as much as it was a nov­el or, as some argue, the first work of sci­ence fic­tion in English.

The prompt for this was a dare in the sum­mer of 1816 on the shores of Lake Geneva to write a ghost sto­ry. And in some ways this start­ed out as a ghost sto­ry about Mary’s own lost child, but it was also a ghost sto­ry about all sorts of miss­ing par­ents and miss­ing chil­dren. And the spec­tres of Victor Frankenstein and his crea­ture today are very real. They seem to be get­ting more tan­gi­ble every moment with every new break­through in syn­thet­ic biol­o­gy, arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, robotics—not even pok­er is safe any­more from machine learn­ing. And the ques­tions that haunt­ed Shelley when she first began com­pos­ing this work are get­ting more press­ing, I would argue, as we begin in very real, very prag­mat­ic, some ways almost quo­tid­i­an ways, to cre­ate life in all sorts of dif­fer­ent ways.

And so I’d like to open this event by argu­ing that this is not just a sto­ry about hubris, about man steal­ing fire from the gods, but also a reflec­tion on sci­en­tif­ic cre­ativ­i­ty and respon­si­bil­i­ty. The ways in which sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery is not so dif­fer­ent from oth­er kinds of reproduction—from bio­log­i­cal repro­duc­tion. The ways in which giv­ing birth to new knowl­edge is like hav­ing a parental rela­tion­ship. And the ways in which our cre­ations and our respon­si­bil­i­ties con­tin­u­al­ly sur­prise us, espe­cial­ly in a world that is get­ting more com­plex and more interconnected.

After the book came out, it went viral in a very 19th cen­tu­ry way. It was imme­di­ate­ly ripped off for the stage, for trans­la­tions. Very quick­ly after it came out it start­ed to be used as a metaphor in polit­i­cal debates and all sorts of oth­er cul­tur­al forms and memes. And per­haps most inter­est­ing­ly, Victor Frankenstein pre­dat­ed the word sci­en­tist” by about twen­ty years. So even before we had this notion of the mod­ern fig­ure of the tech­ni­cal inves­ti­ga­tor, the sci­en­tist, we had this flawed fig­ure, this per­son who bal­ances cutting-edge mod­ern research on the one hand, with these ancient, mys­ti­cal, alchem­i­cal arts that Mary Shelley bal­anced in her book in the con­text of nat­ur­al philosophy.

So the spawn of Frankenstein is legion. The myths, the fig­ure of the mad sci­en­tist, the thought­less cre­ator and the crea­ture, the mon­ster, the demon. The abid­ing ques­tions that stick with us. What it means to be alive. What it means to be human. What our respon­si­bil­i­ties as cre­ators are. These are the things that we’re going to be talk­ing about today. 

So we will lead in with Patric Verrone talk­ing about the notion of play­ing God. Patric is a writer and pro­duc­er. You may know his work from Futurama.

Further Reference

The Spawn of Frankenstein event page at New America, recap at Slate Future Tense, and Futurography’s series on Frankenstein