In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the titular doctor’s creation is a superhuman entity, capable of feats well beyond any natural creature. Though it has so much potential, when the doctor looks upon the creature, he sees only ugliness and brutality. And so, rather than teaching it how to function in society, he reacts in fears, and abandons it.
From this, a monster is born. A monster that wreaks unwitting terror, killing its creator before it too is destroyed.
200 years later, we find ourselves amidst a modern Frankenstein tale. A tale of a digital homunculus that absorbs the best of human intellect and innovation, and takes it beyond our mortal limits. A tale of artificial intelligence, and automation.
Already, the fear is spreading. From the truck driver of 30 years fearing they’ll soon be out of a job, to Stephen Hawking himself, who declared that AI will be “either the best, or the worst thing to happen to humanity”, the majority of us have reacted to the age of artificial intelligence with worried uncertainty.
The groundbreaking science fiction writer Isaac Asimov aptly dubbed this uncertainty Frankenstein Complex. He used this term to explain his theory that humans instinctively resist the idea of “mechanical men”. Not because we fear our death at their hands (the three rules of robotics he pioneered in I, Robot will see that this does not happen), but because we’re scared that they will make us irrelevant.
In their 2010-2014 report, the World Values Survey found that 81.6% of Australians and 79.9% of Americans considered work one of the most important elements in their life. Those who found meaningful work and continued in it post-retirement age were 10% less likely to die for each year of delay than those who did retire.
Work motivates us. It makes us happier and healthier. But what happens when jobs thought stable for decades, even centuries, are made irrelevant overnight?
They will be replaced by new jobs, futurists assure us. Jobs that, even a few years ago, had never been thought about. Their claims are grounded in history: the fieldworker replaced by harvesting machines only to apply their proficiency in physical labour elsewhere, or the telephone operators whose administrative skills resulted into expanded responsibilities in the wake of computer systems.
This might be of slight comfort, but here’s the thing – if we’re not preparing for the future of work now, it doesn’t matter what kind of jobs are made available in the future. Rather than fear Frankenstein, we must learn to love the beast, and find the best way to carry on in harmony alongside it.
We must not remain passive. It is time to start confronting our concerns; to define our futures like all humans must in times of change, lest our concerns come to define us.