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The Literary Year: 02 January

If we measure Science Fiction writers by their influence, then Isaac Asimov, who would have been 101 today, sits right at the top table, and perhaps becomes increasingly important as the century progresses.

I mentioned on 16 December that Asimov was one of the second triumvirate of SF authors to dominate my reading, to the extent that I based a chapter of my dissertation, ‘I, Life’: Man and Machine Evolution in Science Fiction on his robot fiction, and you'll probably recognise the title's tribute to what I think is his most important and enduring work, I Robot (1950).

That dissertation pivoted round what Vernor Vinge described as the technological 'Singularity', the moment at which Artificial Intelligence exceeds humanity's. The term has connotations of a cosmic black hole, because in its simplest terms, we cannot accurately predict what lies on the other side of the event, good or bad. It's been fertile ground for creatives for almost a century (Fritz Lang's classic film, Metropolis, was released in 1927), but Machine Intelligence is, of course, a very relevant part of 21st Century life.

Asimov's contribution and influence lies in the area of Machine Ethics. His Robots are constructed with 'positronic' brains imprinted with his Three Laws, which it's worth reproducing here:

1 - A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2 - A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3 - A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law. Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition, 2058 A.D. (I, Robot, p.8)

These laws, perhaps supplemented by the later, problematic and precedent Zeroth Law ('A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.') have in fact dominated attempts to lay foundations for AI's relationship with its creators. He also explores, incidentally, an evolution in the appearance of Robots from threatening, glowing-eyed tin cans to completely indistinguishable from humans. This is another fascinating area of real-world AI/Robotics - if you're interested, look out Masahiro Mori's 1970 paper on 'The Uncanny Valley'.

Here I want to divert to a little rant: Asimov was, ultimately, a technophile - as today's resource demonstrates. Here's another quotation from I, Robot:

... you just can't differentiate between a robot and the very best of humans.

... which is why I have no time for Alex Proyas' 2004 film, starring Will Smith. had Asimov lived to see it filmed, I think he would be horrified.

Let's turn quickly to the seminal book. I don't suppose anyone would give Asimov any awards for prose style, unlike say Ray Bradbury - the stories are more like a series of thought experiments worked through, where the Three Laws are destruct-tested in a variety of situations. Perhaps that's one reason why the Laws have become so pervasive. That said, there's plenty of humour, too: 'Reason' 1941, is hilarious.

I'll leave you with one final thought that you might find intriguing. In my dissertation, I suggested that Asimov's short stories, and the journey to the Singularity, could be a metaphor for the treatment of African Americans in the US ... whether you're picking it up for the first time or a repeat read, what does I, Robot and its companion short stories have to say to us now, in the era of Black Lives Matter ... ?


By other authors:

Philip K Dick: 'PKD' experienced a remarkable epiphany in his life and writing career. His earlier work supported his view that 'the Devil wears a metal face' - try the short story, 'Second Variety' (1953) - surely an inspiration for James Cameron's Terminator (1984). On the other hand, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968) - the basis of Ridley Scott's Bladerunner (1982) - is far more philosophical about the question of what it means to be human.

Mary Shelley: Frankenstein (1818) has to be the seminal work on man's relationship with his own creations.

Here's a PDF version of today's resource. Happy New Year!

Calendar 0102 I_Asimov
Download PDF • 58KB

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