What if we had the technology to bring back the woolly mammoth or the dodo bird from extinction?
Or edit DNA to eliminate certain diseases?
Even if we could, should we?
In Technology and the Frankenstein Myth, a three-week summer session class in the engineering school, students who might typically aim to test nature’s limits are challenged to take responsibility for the full impact of their designs.
“Engineers have the power to shape society,” says Professor Ben Laugelli (Grad ’09, ’14), who wants to ensure that “they have some critical thinking and ethical foundations before they get there.”
Laugelli prepares his students for that responsibility, in part, by studying Frankenstein, Mary Shelley’s 19th-century cautionary tale of an overreaching scientist who secretly creates the impossible but refuses to accept responsibility for his murderous creation.
Similar to how the characters and themes of Greek myths influence literature, the myth of Frankenstein has permeated science fiction—in this case with its warnings “against certain practices of techno-science,” Laugelli says. The class syllabus includes discussing movies such as Jurassic Park and Avengers: Age of Ultron, which contain elements of Shelley’s tale.
Science fiction has an important role, Laugelli says, because it helps to “fill the gap” in imagination between reality and possibility, ultimately shaping the public view of new technology, for good or bad.
For example, scientists hoping to bring back the dodo might say the result would look nothing like the carnage of Jurassic Park. The real-life technology, however, would be prominently associated with the movie storyline, which could negatively sway public perception and thus impede funding or approval.
As a result, Laugelli says, engineers must educate their audience—whether the government or private investors—about the realities of their designs. It’s not enough to come up with a great idea in a lab, he says. “If we can’t express the value of it and help others see that, it’s not going to go anywhere.”
To balance Frankenstein’s negative portrayals, the class also reads Isaac Asimov’s Robot Visions, which positively portrays robots.
Unlike most engineering classes, the primary assignment is a research paper, which will prepare students for the intensive written portfolio in their fourth year. The topic is a controversial technology, and students must also present a pitch for a science fiction story that incorporates the same technology.
For this assignment, Laugelli says, students have to exercise their imagination and ask: “What are the social and ethical implications of this technology?”
Dana Wang (Engr ’20) appreciated how the class “opens up an engineer’s mind.” While other classes ask her to build something, Laugelli’s class had her consider how to “perceive ethics and incorporate them” in her future designs.
These students may or may not help bring back the dodo bird one day, but Laugelli hopes his class has prepared them to do whatever “great and marvelous things that they’re going to do” with a new sense of responsibility.