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


Help Support Open Transcripts

If you found this useful or interesting, please consider supporting the project monthly at Patreon or once via Square Cash, or even just sharing the link. Thanks.