I love the story of Frankenstein, because I adore the thought of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, on a dark and stormy night, sitting down with two great poets (her husband and Lord Byron) to write a horror story, and her, a woman, penning one of the most famous stories every written. It's a story of men playing God with science, and what happens when it goes afoul - as well as man's inability to take responsibility for their actions - let alone poor parenting. Victor Frankenstein, when confronted with his creation, shuns the poor creature in horror:
With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
How can I describe my emotions at this catastrophe, or how delineate the wretch whom with such infinite pains and care I had endeavoured to form? His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.
It is as if he can only truly see it after it is made, so fevered was he with the excitement of his vision of bringing a corpse - or a selection of corpse parts - to life. His 'child', sadly, becomes a monster, feared and shunned. Through a modern reader's eyes, it is possible to feel empathy for the re-animated man, because had he not been rejected so, he might have behaved a bit better. Like any man, he yearned to be loved, and accepted by his father. No such luck:
I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.
People often call Frankenstein's creation Frankenstein himself, but he's never given the honour of a name. He's used as a warning still for science - we don't want to create another Frankenstein, we say, thinking of the monster. But our words still ring true - we don't want to be that scientist, fevered and frenzied and dreaming of fame, creating something that can have huge repercussions for the world. And so, ethics is important in science. The visions need tethering, and we need to manage our deepest fears, the 'what if' scenarios as well as the 'do you really think we should'.
The 'should' comes into play a lot in modern society as man continues to play God.
However, science is not evil - only the men who create it, using it for nefarious reasons. There is much good to be done in medical science where many problems potentially can be solved. Can you imagine Mary Shelley considering xenobots? Self healing bots controlled by microcomputers, like her monster, harvested from body parts? Well, not arms and legs but a little more sophisticated than that - the stem cells of frog embryos. The resulting tiny creatures are alive, and, if evolved, possibly able to carry small medicines into the bloodstream, deal with microplastics in polluted oceans, remove plaque from human arteries - the speculative possibilities are endless. Shelley might have been concerned about the man behind the machine, programming for ill - biological warfare comes to mind. Like with any new technology, an ethical lens should always be applied rather than blind enthusiasm without care for the consequences.
Like any science that is a cure, I get a little concerned myself. Take the case of bees, for example. It worries me we're creating mini bot bees when I feel the science should be going toward protecting the bees in the first case. But then science deals with possible solutions for probable problems -- if we lose all the bees, then what next? What is another way - a remarkable way - that we can deal with pollution in the oceans if we can't figure out another way to fix it, or if human beings continue to through millions of plastics away every year?
Soft robotics is not easy - these hybrid living cell robots need to evolve and adapt, with the help of human beings. Like Frankenstein's monster, they need to learn to evolve and adapt to the world it's operating within.
As long as we love the little xenobots and don't recoil in horror, causing them to feel rejected and destroy the human race, I think we're good to go.