What is the Frankenstein complex?

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Russian-born science writer and disseminator Isaac Asimov (1920-2002) coined the expression "Frankenstein complex" to describe men's fear of machines rebelling against their creators, a clear allusion to the legendary monster in Mary W. Shelley's novel.

Asimov then devised the famous Three Laws of Robotics, with the idea of counteracting the Frankenstein complex. 

These three laws acted as a kind of moral code of conduct for robots that would prevent them from rising up against their creators. 

Although this ‘complex’ has inspired hundreds of science fiction stories and films, it’s far from a new one. Throughout the history of time there has been some concern about the autonomy of human-made gadgets. Recent innovations such as personal computers or the boom of the Internet caused distrust of fear in thousands of people until they began to understand how it works.

This irrational fear of a man reaching a point where he cannot control his creations comes from Mary Shelley’s novel ‘Frankenstein’; a scientist who creates life but is then horrified by what he has done.

Although cases of malfunctioning and bloodthirsty technology are fairly rare, tons of science fiction stories have been created that warn us of technology becoming a threat to the survival of humanity. Starting from Frankenstein to almost every science fiction film or series, humanity is told to beware of technology: The Matrix, Terminator, Jurassic Park, Planet of the Apes...and the list goes on.

Even though Asimov named it the Frankenstein complex he was sick of it! Instead of thinking of the robot as a monster, Asimov turned this fear around and imagined robots as a tool. Take for instance a car, of course there are car accidents but cars don’t try to kill us and in fact, manufacturers try to maximise the safety of their users. So why shouldn’t robots be built to be safe? So, Asimov decided to write stories about how people and robots would get along well if robots weren’t built with the malicious idea in mind of human extermination. 

 

Year 2021

Asimov envisioned a 2021 future in which a robot called Herbie had been created with the involuntary ability to read minds, so he ends up telling people what he wants to hear, something that robopsychologist Susan Calvin realizes. Why does the robot do that? Because Herbie can read minds and knows that he will hurt people if he tells the truth, and hurting people goes against the First Robotics Act. In this scenario, Calvin tells Herbie that anything he does would violate the First Law and Herbie would go crazy.

 

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