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Quirk of history

Frankenstein, Darwin and our fears for the future

Will Smith in I, Robot (2004)

Humanity was worried about its creations going rogue long before the advent of AI, says Stephen Mihm in Bloomberg. The “golem” from Jewish folklore, a mythical clay creature “brought to life by mystical incantations”, turns disobedient and destructive in some versions of the story. The monster from Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein rebels against its creator too. But it was Charles Darwin’s writings on evolution in the mid-19th century that really stirred up anxieties. If humans had evolved rather than “walking out of the Garden of Eden fully formed”, people reasoned, they could eventually “be supplanted by something superior”, just like the other “long-gone species” of history.

Four years after the publication of On the Origin of Species, British writer Samuel Butler wrote an essay anticipating “virtually all of our current anxieties about AI run amok”. In Darwin Among the Machines, he observed that “we are ourselves creating our own successors” by supplying machines with “self-regulating, self-acting power”. Eventually, he predicted, “man will have become to the machine what the horse and the dog are to man”.

⚛️💥 “I was reading in the paper the other day about those birds who are trying to split the atom, the nub being that they haven’t the foggiest as to what will happen if they do. It may be all right. On the other hand, it may not be all right. And pretty silly a chap would feel, no doubt, if, having split the atom, he suddenly found the house going up in smoke and himself torn limb from limb.”
Bertie Wooster in Right Ho, Jeeves by PG Wodehouse