Terminator! Frankenstein! Skynet! Ex Machina! Considering the interest and discussions about artificial intelligence (AI), one would like to think that humanity is on the verge of destruction. From enslavement to complete extinction, everything happens, but almost no consideration of the reasons why we develop AI at all and what we use it for.
Although this kind of one-sided approach to a technology is not unique to AI, it is precisely with artificial intelligence and robots that we seem to reach a new level of hysteria. The negative spiral is not only intensified by the most popular opinion leaders, who often lack any technical background – and are often even proud to present it – but have long curly hair. Unfortunately, too few AI experts make appearances in the public discourse. And the few who make themselves heard give the impression of representing an equally negative interpretation. And this could be the fault of an implicit media filter, where above all those experts only those who are equally happy to represent dystopian scenarios are allowed to have their say.
The most recent example is an article by the Austrian Broadcasting Corporation ORF, which makes the very creative and original connection between AI and Frankenstein. A quick search on Google and the first page of search results spits out a series of equally creative headlines:
- AI: are we building a partner, or a Frankenstein’s monster?
- AI in Popular Culture: How Much Do You Remember?
- The Case Against Using a Frankenstein Cybersecurity Platform
- Your Phone Knows You Too Well. Tom Gruber Knows Why
- A genius scientist battles the AI overlords he created in Boom!’s new sci-fi saga, Origins
- We need to reckon with our love of sexy robots
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein came into the world when a new technology captured people’s imagination: electricity. The author, who was only 20 years old at the time of the first publication, captured the mood of the time. More than 200 years later, electricity is taken for granted, a life without this technology is no longer imaginable. And that we would create a monster has not proven true until today.
So when we learn something from the past, our fears are greatly exaggerated and distort our view of the essential: namely, what can this new technology do for us? Umbrellas keep us dry and don’t turn us into ‘French people’, vaccinations don’t make us autistic or ‘implant secret chips’, as vaccination opponents 100 years ago and today would have us believe. What it means for us to have no vaccine is shown by the COVID-10 pandemic, which, almost a year after its first appearance, is keeping us more under control than ever before. Public life is paralyzed, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed by the virus, and the economy and with it the dreams of many people have collapsed.
Fear of Change And Status Quo Bias
The fear of the new, as is currently the case with artificial intelligence and robots, has to do with the fear of change and thus uncertainty. Even if it is worse, we prefer to hold on to the status quo rather than welcome the better new, also because we know the old and it is not yet clear what the new really means. Moral entrepreneurs take advantage of this and warn explicitly and in dystopian scenarios of the collapse of civilization, and dream of a simple world of ‘real people’ – and thus harm society more than they benefit. And at the same time they profit from the very technologies they demonize.
This is supported by the media, who know that negative headlines sell better and generate more clicks than positive ones. In doing so, they make themselves into henchmen of the anti-renaissance and anti-modernism that cultivates the Biedermeier era. At the same time – and this is the paradox – they are the ones who benefit as much from the achievement of all man-made technologies as anyone else, and thus have the luxury of philosophizing through technology about how bad is technology. The irony of the situation is not recognized.
Search for Frankenstein
Every single one of us can do something about it. It starts with honestly and sincerely dealing with the background of a new technology and the people behind it. Why was it developed? What problems did its creators want to solve? Can I try out this technology myself and gain first-hand experience? What does a language assistant like Alexa mean for disabled or elderly people? How do autonomous cars reduce today’s accident figures and thus the number of deaths and injuries caused by humans? Can an AI save more people from being diagnosed with cancer too late and thus save lives by detecting tumors on the skin or X-rays early? How do translation tools such as DeepL or Google-Translate work when communicating with people from other cultures? All these tools already use AI today, nothing easier than to try them out yourself and find the Frankenstein in them. And that will probably be in vain.
Only then do I have a better insight into what the technology can do, where its limitations lie, what it actually improves and in which direction it is developing, and what potential problems it could cause and actually become relevant. Actually, you would think that this would be general knowledge, but it isn’t. Our reptile brains automatically switch to fear mode.
The process so common today of being afraid and accepting the worst is a hindrance to a person in the 21st century. Our societies have become too complex, so that we can tackle them with simple solutions. And to do so, we have to create technology ourselves that can help us – like one that brings more and our complementary intelligence to the world. The people who created Frankenstein and bitterly disappointed him, and who still today refer to this creature and use it as a memorial, have in any case not come one step further than our ancestors, who just learned to walk upright.
By the way, the cover picture is from a Frankenstein board game by Invedars.