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The Pride of Wisdom: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Kurzweil’s “The Coming Merger of Mind and Machine”

December 7, 2013

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is modernity’s great cautionary tale, with its profound understanding of science’s ambitions, as well as the demons such ambition can unleash.  Science, for better or worse, has usually managed to proceed untroubled by Shelley’s warnings.  We will consider Ray Kurzweil’s 2008 essay, “The Coming Merger of Mind and Machine,” which predicts computer consciousness far surpassing our own in the coming decades, as a way to help us grapple with Shelley’s own mad scientist. Kurzweil’s belief in his own reasoning prompts a critical reader to ask questions about his methods, his metaphors, and the moral dimension of his ideas.  And these are questions that Shelley, too, found necessary to ask of the seemingly limitless capabilities the Romantic era proclaimed for humankind.

Is Frankenstein’s trepidation only applicable in historical context, and will an over-attachment to its humanist reservations leave us unprepared for the technological revolution Kurzweil assures us is already underway? Does Shelley’s tale provide an important model for problematizing thinking like Kurzweil’s? Using Writing to Learn practices, we will explore these questions as we examine Shelley and Kurzweil’s ideas with regards to the relationship between science, humanism, and the monsters that haunt them both.

Texts: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (any edition) and Ray Kurzweil’s “The Coming Merger of Mind and Machine” (available online)