In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the titular doctor’s creation is a superhuman being, capable of feats well beyond any Earthly creature. Yet in its infancy, it is repulsive; ugly, brutish, and terrified by a world it does not understand. In fear, the doctor – who should guide the creature as a father guides a son – abandons this unique and powerful entity.
And so a monster is born. A monster that goes on to kill its creator.
200 years later, we find ourselves in the prologue of a new Frankenstein tale. Of course, it’s not reanimated zombies that we face, but modern technology given life in the form of artificial intelligence.
It’s a fear held firm across the Western world, from the fast-food restaurant manager soon to be out of a job, to great minds including Stephen Hawking, who has said AI stands to be “either the best, or the worst, thing to happen to humanity”.
Isaac Asimov – one of the founding fathers of science fiction – called this phobia (unsurprisingly) the Frankenstein Complex. It’s based on the notion that humans will always resist the realisation of engineered intelligence (what he calls ‘mechanical men’). Not because they are scared that the machines will kill them à la The Terminator, but because they are scared of becoming 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 those jobs no longer exist?
Experts are quick to propose that new jobs will be created to meet the needs of the new workforce – while at the same time admitting that they don’t know what this new workforce will actually be. They are simply basing their beliefs on historical examples: the fieldworker pushed out 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.
When entire industries are in the throes of unprecedented change now, it is not enough to simply say that jobs will appear in the future. If we – the lawyers, the mechanics, the retail salesperson, the accountant, the executive assistant, the human resources officer – aren’t preparing for the new workforce today, then tomorrow we risk being put out to pasture like the horse in the wake of the automobile.
“This isn’t some hypothetical future possibility. This is something that’s emerging before us right now,” warns former US Treasury Secretary and Harvard economics professor Lawrence Summers. He has joined many experts in defying the notion that jobs will simply rise from the ashes of the traditional workforce, and is calling on leaders in government, technology, business, and education to deliver solid action and start preparing workers for what’s to come.
Until that action is implemented, the Frankenstein Complex will continue to run rife. Workers will look to the past for security, not the future for opportunity. They will be left disillusioned, angry, and irrelevant.
We must not remain passive until this change is upon us. It is time to start raising our concerns; to define our futures, like humans must in times of revolution, lest they come to define us.