Monsters, Myself and AI

Homerton College, Cambridge, October 27th, 2018

As part of events to mark Homerton College’s 250th anniversary its Principal, Professor Geoff Ward, took part in a discussion on Monsters and Artificial Intelligence, exploring what it means to be human. He was joined by Dr Beth Singler, Junior Research Fellow in Artificial Intelligence, and Dr Melanie Keene (History and Philosophy of Science).

photo Louise Walker

Professor Ward, who is also a literary critic and novelist, began by discussing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, 200 years old this year. He marveled at the sheer longevity of the monster, created by a teenager, observing that “there’s a Frankenstein for everyone.” After publication the novel was picked up quickly by the London theatre and a silent movie version came out in 1910. Boris Karloff is the stereotypical lumbering monster (1935) but in the text Frankenstein’s creature moves at superhuman speed. In all these versions the monster appeals to us because it is fighting back and “expressing our desire to release our spleen and anger.”

The “first big gothic novel was written in very gothic circumstances,” said Ward. In the summer of 1816 Mary Shelley, husband Percy, and his best friend Lord Byron were staying in a villa by Lake Geneva. The weather was “frequently apocalyptic” due to the worldwide effects of a major volcanic eruption in Indonesia (Mount Tambora) the previous year. Forced indoors, Byron proposed that “they each write a ghost story.” Mary’s contribution was inspired by a terrible nightmare about a monster coming alive.

Beth Singler started her presentation with a quote: “intelligence is knowing that Frankenstein is not the Monster; wisdom is knowing that Frankenstein is the monster.” In the realm of Artificial Intelligence there is a tension between greater intelligence and life, between creators and their creations: are robots tools or slaves? What are the values of the people exploring and developing AI? Many worry that they are playing God.  Religions now exist that ‘worship’ AI – Way of the Future in Silicon Valley, for example.

photo Louise Walker

Dr Singler showed us a montage slide of ‘distubing children’ from films such as Children of the Damned and The Shining. She talked about the myth of The Changeling, an idea that seeks to explain why children might behave in a disturbing way (they have been replaced by fairies). Reproduction or Production? asks Singler, quoting Kahlil Gibran: “they come through you but not from you,” (On Children).

Although Mary Shelley came from a radical background, Frankenstein is quite conventional, said Ward. Its’ message is: ‘if you go too far, you will be caught out.’ It is a general warning about transgressing or overreaching in science, for those who run away from the consequences of their creations. Once you have created, you cannot un-create, and there is a danger of being pursued by your creation if you abandon it.

Singler wondered how humans could get the ‘shoulds’ into AI, asking “where do the transgressions lie for AI beings?” Who is the regulator now that it is no longer the church? The state? Or science?

Dr Keene queried whether advanced AI was ‘unnatural’: “is this just one step beyond?” In a world that already has ‘virtual assistants’ such as Amazon’s Alexa, with its ‘pleasing’ female voice, people are trying to develop more advanced forms of AI that can have relationships with humans. But now that the genie is out of the bottle there is a fear of being ‘out-thought’ by our creations.

photo Louise Walker

To illustrate this unease about AI, Singler cited ‘uncanny valley’, an aesthetic idea from the 1970s, which suggests human-like robots elicit uncanny, or strangely familiar, feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers. She gave the example of the CGI used in the film The Polar Express, which many viewers thought ‘too creepy.’

Questions from the audience started with one about Stephen Hawking, whose “last thoughts were fears for the future of AI,” according to the questioner. Was our dependency on technology and gadgets making us less intelligent? Singler thought not – it was “changing the form of our intelligence, rather than depleting it.” We adapt, said Ward.

Another member of the audience asked whether the notion of conscience was a unique characteristic of our biology. Singler said it was also a social thing that we develop with each other. In Frankenstein, the monster starts out ‘innocent,’ a noble savage’ who wants to like humans and be liked in return, but it does not have a social network to develop any interaction.

Debates are happening around art and music – a work of art made by AI was sold by Christie’s in October for $432,500. If you take a look, it might make you feel a bit ‘uncanny’ and bring out your latent luddite tendencies (


The panel ended the discussion by conjuring up the fascinating and frightening  prospect of us evolving into a fusion of human and machine, a cyborg that can ‘terminate’ our own death.  New AI might even be able to solve problems like global warming and inequality.

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