The Monsters We Create

One of the gems of our community is the MIT Press which publishes 220 books yearly, primarily focusing on science, technology and invention. It’s a special moment, however, when one book becomes a bit of a sensation. Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus, the brilliant novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley, is celebrating its 200th anniversary, and a number of new editions have been released, including Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds, published by the MIT Press and edited by David H. Guston, Ed Finn, and Jason Scott Robert.

Although this masterpiece of fiction has often been used as a cautionary tale for social and political change, not a day goes by that Frankenstein is not used as a metaphor for science gone wrong—from “frankenfood” to “designer babies”.  Recently, Frankenstein has been used as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley and the spiraling development and utilization of AI.

According to the editors of this new edition, “No work of literature has done more to shape the way humans imagine science and its moral consequences than Frankenstein; or The Modern Prometheus.” Using the novel as a springboard, the editors create a detailed annotated library, creating comparisons to past and contemporary technological dilemmas. In Volume 2, Victor Frankenstein (the creator of “the monster”), says, “Remorse extinguished every hope…I have been the author of unalterable evils; and I lived in daily fear, lest the monster whom I created should perpetrate some new wickedness.” At this point in the narrative, the annotation reads, “The remorse Victor expresses is reminiscent of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s sentiments when he witnessed the unspeakable power of the atomic bomb…Scientists’ responsibility must be engaged before their creations are unleashed.”

Wise words to reflect upon and consider.  Shelley’s novel stands independently as a masterpiece of literature. This annotated version adds a dimension that is both a fun and fascinating way to consider scientific innovation and culpability and ethics.

As we develop our plans for the spring, ethical reflection is at the forefront. Throughout the semester, we encourage students to think about ethics, both as scientists and as engaged citizens in our undergraduate seminar; in March, we will co-host two MIT Communications Forum events; in April we will once again be a co-sponsor for MIT’s Day of Action; in May, we will feature a substantive panel on artificial intelligence and the future of work.

We welcome you to join us in this challenging adventure of reflection and action.