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Flowers for Algernon: The Pursuit For Artificial Intelligence

Daniel Keyes science-fiction novel Flowers for Algernon, first published in 1966, relates the story of Charlie Gordon through a diary (a collection of "progress reports") written by Charlie, a mentally-challenged man who via experimental brain surgery evolves into a genius. Although many scientist and researchers in today's highly technological age are striving for ways to increase the mental capacities of human beings through biological and artificial means, when Flowers for Algernon first appeared, such ideas were pure science-fiction. Yet despite Charlie's tragic outcome in the novel, it seems a wise idea to continue to pursue any and all means to increase the mental abilities of human beings, due in part to the need for highly-intelligent men and women who will confront unimagined conditions in the distant future.

At the beginning of the novel, the reader is introduced to Charlie in the first-person narrative, for he writes, in the language of a very simple-minded and obviously uneducated person, that "Dr. Strauss says I should rite down what I think. . . I don't no why but he says its important. . . I hope they use me becaus. . . maybe they can make me smart" ("progris riport 1, pg. 1). From Charlie's viewpoint, it appears that he considers being smart as a necessary trait for success in the world, not to mention that he equates intelligence with being loved and accepted by his peers. In the novel, Charlie's wish to be smart comes true, for Dr. Strauss and his team of scientist perform a brain operation on Charlie based on an experiment done on a mouse named Algernon. And within a few weeks, the operation turns out to be a complete success, for Charlie become more intelligent than the scientists that performed the operation.

However, with all of this artificial brilliance, Charlie soon discovers that intelligence comes with a price, for he finds that his co-workers...

...

Thus, he turns very arrogant and takes on a superior attitude which only alienates him, especially from the scientist that created his genius. When Charlie finally decides to pay his mother a visit, she rejects him; his father does the same, due to not appreciating the great changes that have come over their son. But worst of all, Charlie discovers that his intelligence is a stumbling block with Alice, the teacher that originally recommended him for the brain surgery. In essence, Charlie's new brilliance has made him an outcast which could be compared to a highly-intelligent child that cannot relate to nor fit in with his peers or even his elders.
But the most tragic aspect lies in the fact that Algernon, the mouse used as the basis for the brain surgery, dies in the lab which forces Charlie to realize that the experiment on him as well will fail. For Daniel Keyes, this proved to be the "fatal flaw" in the character of Charlie Gordon, for through this plot device, Keyes expresses his underlying theme and forces the reader to consider whether the desire to reach beyond one's capabilities is a dangerous precedent and whether science should be utilized to effectively alter a person's mental state of mind and consequently his entire personality.

Flowers for Algernon is a work of science-fiction, yet it contains as its underlying theme the desire for science to expand human knowledge. But instead of utilizing the positive aspects of this desire, Keyes focuses on the possible tragic outcomes related to science and its quest for ultimate knowledge. Thus, as a novel written from this perspective, Flowers for Algernon presents to the reader a ponderous question, namely, whether the benefits gained from greater knowledge are worth the price. In regard to artificial intelligence, Charlie is the quintessential "guinea pig," much like Algernon the mouse, yet Charlie, unlike Algernon, obviously volunteered…

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1987.

FLOWERS FOR ALGERNON


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