Vanity Fair, Elon Musk, AI…and Frankenstein

I never get tired of teaching Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Once students get past the slightly difficult language (ie, nineteenth-century English), the story grabs them in ways they don’t expect. They’re used to the Boris Karloff “grr-argh-grr” monster with the thudding feet and neck bolts, not Shelley’s creature, who thinks of speech as a “god-like” invention and only wants to love and be loved. Their other association with the novel — the meaning with the most cultural traction — is that it’s about a “mad scientist” who loses everything due to his crazed ambitions.

It’s that association that Elon Musk uses in a comment he makes to Maureen Dowd, in an article in the most recent issue of Vanity Fair. The profile focuses on disagreements among other tech gurus about the relative merits of artificial intelligence (AI). Musk, who thinks that A.I. is humanity’s biggest threat, is quoted as saying “sometimes what will happen is a scientist will get so engrossed in their work that they don’t really realize the ramifications of what they’re doing.” That description is how most of us think about Frankenstein.

Victor Frankenstein’s ambition to “penetrate the recesses of nature” leads him to create a human being, which he thinks will become a new species that will “bless him” as the creator. Victor’s creature, as we all know, does not turn out the way Victor expects, and when the creature comes to life one November evening, Victor flees in horror, leaving his creature defenseless and alone — and outside of Victor’s control. Eventually, after the creature learns to read and think, he confronts Victor and demands that Victor make him a female companion. The creature plans to flee with the female to South America, where they will live on nuts and berries and exist in complete harmony with nature. Victor initially agrees to this plan and then changes his mind, fearful that the female creature “might refuse to comply” with the plan. He destroys the female creature, which sends his first creation into a vengeful rage. The final chapters of the novel focus on the battle between man and creation, each trying to destroy the other.

The novel is about the dangers of ambition, yes, and about not realizing the full ramifications of your actions, but ultimately, “Frankenstein’s monster” is not the problem.

At the heart of the novel is what happens when women are neglected and their experiences denied by male ambition. Frankenstein wants to create life all by himself, without women; he cannot bear the thought that the female creature might not “comply” with what men want her to do; and when the creature kills Frankenstein’s bride on their wedding night, it’s because Frankenstein never thought that the monster would bother with anyone else other than him.

In the process of writing about Musk, Maureen Dowd also interviewed a number of other players in the tech world as a way to map the spectrum of attitudes about AI developments.

Here is the infographic that accompanied the article:

image from Vanity Fair

Notice anything? It’s like Frankenstein talking to himself: apparently only men have opinions about AI — and I guess that explains why Dowd’s article only contains comments from men. Musk talks about other male entrepreneurs, who then talk about Musk, themselves, and each other. It’s a giant reflecting mirror of men talking about their accomplishments — past, present, and future.

And yet, as Heather Roff pointed out in a recent issue of Foreign Policy, no one involved in AI development seems to be asking key questions: “Are there abuses of power? What is the value happening here? Why are we doing this? Who is subordinate? And who is in charge?” Questions like these are embedded in feminist theories but I’m going to bet that none of the guys on that infographic are very well versed in the writings of Donna Haraway or bell hooks.

The men in Dowd’s article are terrifically accomplished, there’s no doubt, but they (and we) should take a lesson from Mary Shelley and her nineteenth-century nightmare: when you leave women out of the equation(s), the results are disastrous.