Monsters

‘It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.’

It is 200 years since Mary Shelley’s Gothic masterpiece, ‘Frankenstein’, was published. In 1818, the novel, unsurprisingly, provoked strong reactions. Contemporary reviewers were unsparing in their criticism. John Wilson Croker dismissed it as ‘tissue of horrible and disgusting absurdity’ and referred to passages which ‘appal the mind and make the flesh creep’. After 200 years, developments in medical science, accompanied by the enduring popularity of the Gothic horror genre, mean that we are inured to the gory details: the stitched-up body parts have become not only a Gothic cliché, but a medical reality (how many of us now question the ethics of heart transplantation?).

It is 22 years since Dolly the sheep first saw the light of day; 21 years since we first saw a mouse with an ear on its back and, as we heard in assembly on Monday, thanks to our understanding of Hox genes, scientists have recently been able to take a single cell from the lung of a pig, develop it into a fully functional lung, and then transplant it back into the original animal. In her assembly address on Monday, Mrs Patterson, Director of Science, Technology and Engineering, kick-started our bicentenary celebrations by exploring whether scientists could ever create a human being as Victor Frankenstein set out to do.  In an address that captured the magic of evolution and the wonder of biology, we heard that the potential to take a single human cell and, from this, ‘to grow parts of bodies and bring them to life’ is no longer the stuff of science fiction – at least not for much longer.

For many of us, such scientific advances no longer ‘appal the mind’ or make our ‘flesh creep’. As Mrs Patterson suggested, instead we recognise their ‘enormous potential for good’. But it could be argued that our fears, rather than being diminished, have simply been transferred. These days, our fears (like our horror films) are dominated by new monsters: these days, it is automation and artificial intelligence that haunt us and make us question whether we have pushed things too far.

We are in the throes of what has been called the Fourth Industrial Revolution and, sometimes, it seems there is a lot to fear. We hear that 50% of jobs will be lost to automation; we are already troubled by the ethics of artificial intelligence; things are developing at a rapid rate.  On Thursday, journalist and writer, Tim Marshall, addressed some of these issues when speaking to students at Wellington’s Global Politics Conference. ‘Choose your careers wisely’, he advised his listeners, before presenting some monster predictions: in the not-too-distant future, most of the work currently undertaken by solicitors will be replaced by algorithms; by 2047, robots will have the capacity to write a best-selling novel. However, he encouraged students not to be frightened by such forecasts, but to embrace the opportunities they will bring. With every job lost, a new (as yet unimagined) one will be created.

The future is exciting.

Citing the emerging field of Cobotics, in which humans and robots collaborate (to perform surgical operations, for example), Tim Marshall presented an optimistic vision of tomorrow’s world.

On Monday, Mrs Patterson finished her assembly with a quotation from the French philosopher Bruno Latour who wrote that the ‘real lesson of ‘Frankenstein’ was not that we should prevent the creation of monsters but that we should love our monsters’.  The monsters of medical science have shown themselves to be our friends. If machines are our new monsters, then we should respect and honour them too.

‘For the first time… I felt what the duties of a creator towards his creature were, and that I ought to render him happy before I complained of his wickedness’.

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