Do we have a Frankenstein problem?

‘Frankenstein stories’ have changed a lot since Mary Shelley published Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus 200 years ago.

It was arguably the first work of science fiction and is the cultural reference we reach for when we think of human-made creations turning on their creators.

Tales of anthropomorphic robots (androids) escaping control and running amok have long been popular with filmgoers, from Fritz Lang’s robot femme fatale in Metropolis (1927) to Ava in Alex Garland’s Ex Machina (2014); from RoboCop and the Terminator films through to I, Robot and Autómata.

But how realistic are fears of a robot apocalypse? Are we facing a Frankenstein moment? If so, what form will the monster take?

Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein is an obsessive scientist who secretly animates an artificial human made from bits of corpses. But, for many people, ‘Frankenstein’ brings to mind the monster, not the creator, and especially Boris Karloff’s character in the 1931 film: a lumbering giant with a rectangular head and neck bolts who’s barely capable of stringing two words together.

Readers who turn to Shelley’s novel are often surprised to find the monster, though horrifying in appearance, is sensitive and articulate. Tormented by exclusion from the human race, he persuades his creator to make him a female companion.

When Victor destroys the female creature, fearing they would breed a ‘race of devils’ that could wipe out the human race, the monster starts a murderous campaign of revenge.

Many modern Frankenstein stories involve androids who turn on their human creators.

In I, Robot, androids escape the control of Isaac Asimov’s famous ‘Three Laws of Robotics’ that prevent harm to humans, and threaten to enslave the human population.

In Westworld, the human-looking ‘hosts’ of a Wild West theme park gain sentience and react against their abusive mistreatment by human tourists.  

In Ex Machina, a female experimental android uses psychological manipulation to escape her male human captors.But the creation of realistic androids lies decades, if not centuries, in the future. The real threats come from elsewhere.