The Inventions Their Inventors Have Lived To Regret

While he denied it all his life, Mikhail Kalashnikov came to feel remorse at what the AK-47 had done in the world.

Jan 15 2014, 12:10am
Photo via flickr/DVIDSHUB

So there's this one line in Jurassic Park that comes to mind a lot. (Bear with me here.) Shit has hit the fan and dinosaurs are eating people, and Jeff Goldblum’s character tells the old guy that created the park, “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.” It's hardly the stuff of great philosophy, but I'd argue the sentiment bears repeating in today's innovation-crazed society—especially because we keep discovering better and easier ways to murder people.

The line sprang to mind again when a letter surfaced written by the Russian designer that invented the AK-47, Mikhail Kalashnikov, who passed away last week. In 2010 Kalashnikov wrote the Russian Orthodox Church to ask if all the blood shed by the wildly popular weapon over the years was on his hands. It's quite poignant. "My spiritual pain is unbearable,” he wrote. "I keep having the same unsolved question: if my rifle claimed people's lives, then can it be that I... a Christian and an Orthodox believer, was to blame for their deaths?"

He’s not the first weapon inventor to feel pangs of regret. Alfred Nobel—yep, the guy the Nobel Peace Prize is named after—created dynamite hoping it would help achieve peace, but instead it wreaked havoc throughout WWI. The inventor of pepper spray was horrified when police used it violently against protesters. The group of nuclear scientists that developed the first atomic bomb then pleaded with the president not to drop it. And although Albert Einstein agreed to urge President Roosevelt to continue research on the bomb, fearing Germany would get there first, he later wrote regretfully, "Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I would have never lifted a finger."

Disparate as those cases are, what they have in common is that the weapon wasn’t used the way it was intended—generally for defense, or security. But you can’t control what people will do with your invention once it’s out there in the world.

The AK-47—which has killed more people than any other gun—was created for the Soviet army at the end of WWII. It was lightweight, durable, reliable, easy to manufacture and maintain, and became the most popular assault rifle ever. It earned Kalashnikov hero status in Russia and was a source of pride for most of his life. But over the years, arms dealers have sold the weapon around the world to wage several wars and acts of violence—uses that Kalashnikov lamented.

"He designed this rifle to defend his country, not so terrorists could use it in Saudi Arabia," the press secretary for the Russian Patriarch told the BBC yesterday.

Fast-forward a half a century and technological breakthroughs have led to even more sophisticated and even more controversial weapons: guns you can print at homeprecision-guided semi-automatic rifles, smart weapons that aim themselves, Predator drones. Lethal autonomous robots are not far out—though that seems to be where society draws the moral line, for now at least. We can make these killing machines—we have the technological now-how. But should we? If these new developments spiral out of control, will the people behind them one day be writing messages of shame and remorse, too?

Child solider with AK-47 in Iran-Iraq War via Wikimedia Commons