My unit will align with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for Advanced Placement Literature students, although it could also be adapted to other texts that pose the same questions: Will we be cautious creating technology, or will our creations ultimately harm us? When we create more beautiful, more intelligent, and more talented humanoid entities to obey us, to think for us, to entice us, and to comfort us, will this diminish how we view other people, and ourselves? I hope this unit will encourage students to be mindful of technology they use, feel agency in determining its future, and strive towards building a more humane world.
The unit will incorporate reading and discussion of Frankenstein, and include research and discussions on moral and philosophical issues in the development of modern intelligent robots, research on 18th century social and historical developments that shaped Mary Shelley’s novel, reading and discussion on the implicit warnings in creation stories from Greek mythology and the Bible, and creating a vision of life fifty years in the future.
Students will first research robotic or virtual entities already existing. How are their phones and virtual assistants affecting their daily lives, and the way they view other people? What might the future be like as the powers of these virtual assistants advance? What other kinds of robotic assistants and genetic-altering technologies already exist in our world? Students will choose a developing technology to research, and consider how it might affect their lives in coming years.
Students begin reading Frankenstein with questions that consider Victor Frankenstein’s motivation in creating a human in a lab, why this new creature evokes such a violent response from the people in Victor’s world, and what the novel’s warning is for scientific endeavors. How might this story relate to the development of current artificially-intelligent technologies?
As they read at home, we will explore two different pasts in class: Mary’s Shelley’s historical past at the revolutionary transition from the Age of Enlightenment to the Industrial Revolution, and mythological pasts that tell the story of human creation. Both of these will tie into a main theme of the unit: We must take care in how we use our impressive creative powers. Students will have supplemental readings to prepare for these discussions.
The next part of the unit will a class discussion of science fiction stories and films, which often depict violent conflicts between robots and humans, often instigated by human brutality. What responsibilities do humans play? Can we avoid this chaos?
Isaac Neal, a computer engineering student and friend, spoke to me recently about something called “the uncanny valley”.1 This a psychological term to describe what happens when a humanoid figure is almost, but not quite real. We accept a figure that is obviously a robot: the Star Wars robots, the robot in Lost in Space, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But when a robot is verging on human, but creepily false? At this point, humans react with violence and revulsion. This is what computer engineers believe will keep real humanoid robots from existing in our near futures, since bridging that uncanny valley is at the moment an engineering impossibility. Is the uncanny valley also a form of tribalism and innate racism? If it is a primitive code, can we overcome it, or rewrite it in our future genome?
Isaac has also worked as a model, and I mentioned an article in The New York Times about Lil Miquela, a virtual influencer2 who works with Prada, gives interviews from Coachella, and kissed a real supermodel in a Calvin Klein commercial. She has over a million followers, though she does not exist. Isaac noted that virtual entities that are not robots are often accepted as human. And apparently, are putting him out of work. “I’m aging out of that market anyway,” he noted. He is only twenty-one.
And that in itself brings up the following issue:
Works that depict robot apocalypses reveal the flaws in humans who created them. This is an important theme in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In E.M. Forester’s story, The Machine Stops, the character Kuno exclaims, “Man is the measure.” Ultimately, whatever good or evil that comes from our inventions was placed there by us. The robots are really immaterial. If a twenty-one-year-old former model is now too old to work, what kind of world have we already created?
I want to inspire students to realize that they have agency in choosing the kinds of technology they use, and in enacting laws governing this technology. I would like them to consider how their futures will be affected by the technology that is already at their fingertips, in their homes, in their stores, in their dreams. What happens to them when they outsource their relationships, their memory, and give up their fulfilling labors to their machines? I would like students to see that the future is engendered by who we are now, and how we treat one another.
Innovations come from dreams. At the end of the unit, I will ask my students to create short “dream vision” work. Science fiction is often set in the near-future, as a way to underscore how close the transformation is. In this assignments, students will travel ahead fifty years. What kinds of relationships are there among humans and the humanoid or genetically-modified entities that inhabit this world? My hope is that they will be inspired to shape innovations and legal boundaries necessary to bend transformational technology towards creating a utopian, rather than dystopian future.