Attack of the Clones

Does it take a careful reading of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to keep us from creating a modern, high-tech version of the infamous monster? I'd argue that the answer is yes. When we need to do some serious thinking, we always look to what has been thought and scribbled long ago. Take the play R.U.R., written by Czech writer Karel Capek more than eighty years ago. Capek is credited with coining the term "robot" in this story of technology gone bad. Instead of freeing their masters from the drudgery of work, the robots in Capek's play revolt and go on a killing spree.

"It's interesting that the person who invented the modern concept of robots predicted that they would destroy us all," writes Peter Menzel in the introduction to the recent book Robo sapiens.

Today, there are some scientists who say robots capable of "thinking" and even replicating themselves may indeed make work currently done by people obsolete. Like Capek, they worry that these almost-alive machines could gradually gain control of the planet and render the human race expendable.

They don't envision a sci-fi scenario with the once-friendly R2D2s staging a revolt, making us into pets, then zapping us with ray guns when they weary of us.

Instead, it might go something like this: a) we build more and more complex machines to do everything from farming to performing brain surgery; b) such robots are fitted with incredibly fast computers, allowing them to make complex decisions faster and more accurately than humans; c) because these robots are now effectively "smarter" than humans, we gradually cede enough control that we lose the choice to shut the machines off; d) robots begin to have a "society" of their own, interacting, thinking, reproducing, competing with one another for resources and, ultimately, destroying everything.

Far-fetched? Just look at the automobile. When Henry Ford began building his rattling black contraptions, it was all about freedom. Freedom from being stuck in our home towns! Freedom from the choked cities! For a long time, it was true. The miraculous technology of mass-produced automobiles played a large part in building the United States into a place with the highest standard of living ever known.

Not bad, right? Then again, oil has become the lifeblood of American society. A hiccup in the supply can lead to war. Our desire to clean up the environment and address greenhouse gases is apparently trumped by our addiction to internal combustion. We seldom walk anywhere, and we survive on fast food dispensed from drive-up windows. It's little wonder that so many Americans struggle to lose weight. The attendant health problems aren't far behind.

Cars have caused a lot of trouble, but can anyone imagine eliminating them? Congress can't even agree to make them slightly more fuel efficient. Given our track record, shouldn't we have genuine concerns about whether technology is shaping us faster than we shape technology? More than ever, this country and the world need vigilant citizens who pay attention to exactly what's going on in the world of science and are equipped to think about ethical dilemmas presented by developments like cloning or the prospect of robots more intelligent than our smartest scientists. That is where a place like Kenyon becomes invaluable.

This year the College unveiled a spectacular and well-equipped science center. But Kenyon's commitment to science education does not mean that the philosophy, history, or any other departments are now nothing more than quaint reminders of the old days. Fields like art and English are essential because they will provide the world with informed citizens well-versed in ideas, people who understand that technology should enhance our work, not simply eliminate it. People who can think for themselves will save us from the robots.

-Phil Brooks

Phil Brooks joined Kenyon's Office of Public Affairs this spring as a staff writer. This piece and his other stories in the issue are his first for the Bulletin. A graduate of Lake Forest College in Illinois, Phil holds a master of fine arts degree from the Iowa Writers' Workshop.

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