From artificial intelligence to biomedical technology, the Mary Shelley classic exhibits a remarkable relevance

(Illustration by Andrew Strawder)

Somewhere amid the news of Facebook’s very dystopian sci-fi-sounding artificial intelligence incident this past July, it was easy enough to think of the simple but critical line delivered by Jeff Goldblum’s character in the original Jurassic Park film — “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

As it turned out, the Facebook incident was likely far more innocuous than the Skynet-esque narrative reported in the media, but amid ever increasing news of driverless cars and unmanned military drone strikes, the could-vs-should dilemma still remains highly relevant for our times.

Of course, the cautionary sentiment should be credited not to Goldblum, but Jurassic Park author Michael Crichton. Going further still, the template for the storyline and its themes could also be cited the full distance back some 200 years ago to Mary Shelley’s classic—Frankenstein.

Shelley’s original novel was published in 1818 (when she was just 20 years old) in an era when cutting-edge technology was the advent of the gas lamp. Yet Shelley’s story continues to resonate two centuries later in 2018 on a variety levels, along the lines of biotechnology, philosophy and, yes, artificial intelligence.

In consideration of the many modern technological advances both at the school and within Silicon Valley, Stanford University’s Medicine and the Muse program has put together the Frankenstein@200 series, celebrating the bi-centennial of Shelley’s book through a diverse series of events, including speakers, art shows and a curated film series. This has run the gamut from panel discussions on the ethics of driverless cars to a lecture on the HBO series Westworld, to screenings of Robocop and My Fair Lady.

Mindful of the program and its compelling schedule for the spring semester, we spoke with program director Joshua Stanley for some insight into the ideas (and events) surrounding Frankenstein@200.

What was the initial impulse for the Frankenstein@200 program and who were the people who set it up at Stanford?

For starters, it’s the brainchild of the director of the Medicine and the Muse program at Stanford—Dr. Audrey Shafer … and it all revolves around the 200th anniversary of the publication of the original novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. And Dr. Shafer has been working on this for well over a year, and given her interests in arts, literature and the humanities in general, not to mention her medical profession, she just felt like it was the perfect opportunity to highlight Frankenstein and its anniversary throughout campus … as a timely warning for all of us as we keep advancing in technology, social media, biomedical-ethics, etc… It’s a great opportunity to bring all the different communities and insights together.

One of the first things I noticed is how many relevant angles there are to it: artificial intelligence, biomedical advances, ethical and philosophical concerns, and then just the literary facet of the book itself. So the program seems to cast a wide net, but a strangely cohesive one…

Yes, and it’s really exciting to see all of the discussions that have come about by bringing all of these different perspectives together in a single setting. It creates for interesting and lively discussions, to say the least.

Can you tell me a bit about the Medicine and the Muse program at Stanford, and what it entails?

So it has been around for over a decade now with the purpose of integrating the arts and humanities at the Stanford School of Medicine with a number of programs for not only medical students, but also physicians, residents and other medical school professors themselves. It is also in charge of the scholarly concentration at the school for medical humanities. And it’s all about exploring the intersection between medicine, the arts, humanities and the social context of medical care, through arts, films and more.

The next event you’re putting on is a screening of the documentary Fixed, which ties back to the question posed at the program’s opening colloquium — “What is Human?” I think it’s really interesting that even though Frankenstein is 200 years old, all these themes being discussed have an element of futurism to them…

Yes, it is interesting, because we are taking a retrospective of this 200-year-old novel, but as far as the futuristic elements, we are looking forward in terms of what constitutes humanity in terms of our technological advances, which went into that question of the program’s opening colloquium— “What is human?”

With Stanford at the forefront of advances regarding artificial intelligence and machines that we are embedding with more and more human characteristics, it is forcing us to question some things that would seem blatantly obvious — to the point that you wouldn’t even consider it before—such as, “what is human?” Because we seem to be broadening that definition and passing it on to our own creations, which then creates and opens that fear of— “Are we going to create our own Frankenstein-esque monsters through these machines?” So that’s what went into the thinking of it, all the academic and technological work on campus, they all just came together in that nexus of Frankenstein.

Thinking about it in those terms, the program seems to exhibit a sense of responsibility by analyzing where we are heading, to take a moment to pause and consider the implications of these advances…

Yeah, to pause and reflect, but to also fuel discussions on these questions, because although they can be discomforting, they are important to ask and they are important to resolve. And the only way we can resolve them for the future is to talk about them openly, and we hope that the Frankenstein@200 initiative helps fuel those future conversations for people across all fields, from science to medicine to the humanities.

So what are the upcoming events that you have planned as you move into the second half of the program for the year?

The films are continuing. We haved Fixed coming up soon. In February, we have Stem Cell Revolution. In March, we have Lo and Behold. All three of those are documentaries, so as as far as the film series goes we have that transition from classic films (and newer films like Get Out) to documentaries that focus on the scientific aspects [of these conversations]. There’s a science festival called “Last” taking place at SLAC in March as well.

Also, we are hosting the 2018 International Health Humanities Consortium Conference, which is focusing on Frankenstein as its theme. We also have another exciting event in April, with Rebecca Skloot coming over with members of the Henrietta Lacks family to discuss issues of biomedical ethics with concern to privacy and compensation for medical patients.

Starting in April, we will have some of the old classic films, such as Bride of Frankenstein, and even a screening of the National Theater Live rendition of Frankenstein which had Benedict Cumberbatch.

And that’s all just a quick rundown of the events off the top of my head.

Just curious then, do you have a favorite film or topic that came up during the program which clued you in to some new ideas that you just didn’t see coming?

Being a bit of a classic guy myself, I always loved Bride of Frankenstein, as a personal favorite.

But one thing that really opened me up to a new perspective was Professor Hank Greely at the law school, who gave a legal perspective at the opening colloquium regarding the troubles lawmakers are having with creating solid laws going into the future, trying to predict the future, which is no easy task for those in the legal profession.

Lastly, and also as far as seeing something in a new light, definitely My Fair Lady comes to mind. Although I had seen it with my girlfriend a few times, I had never paused to think of it from a Frankenstein perspective before.

The documentary Fixed: the Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement screens tonight (1/23) at Stanford University, with a panel discussion afterwards featuring the film’s director Regan Brashear.

The Frankenstein@200 series at Stanford continues through the spring semester. For more on the program and upcoming events, click here.

Charles Russo

Award-winning writer and photographer with extensive experience across mediums, including videography, investigative reporting, editing, advanced research, and a wide range of photography.

Author of Striking Distance: Bruce Lee and the Dawn of Martial Arts in America; represented by Levine Greenberg Rostan Agency.

Freelance clients include Google, VICE and Stanford University.

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