Sometimes I have little right to call myself a nerd. There are some pieces of media that I have not read, nor seen, and I feel like those pieces are a huge part of nerd culture. But “nerd culture” is so broad that I’m probably too hard on myself. Still, when my only exposure to Issac Asimov is knowing that he wrote stuff about robots, I feel I need to educate myself.
As such, I have embarked on what will likely be a long journey to read through his novels. He was a prolific author of short stories as well, but I’m going to focus on the “Robots” and “Foundation” series. I intend to read them in chronological order for the universe, not the order in which Asimov wrote them.
So I started with I, Robot, which is actually a collection of short stories that produces a coherent narrative about the development of artificial intelligence. Unsurprisingly, the movie of the same name had pretty much nothing to do with the stories in any way, shape, or form.
Of course, since these stories were written awhile ago, they focus on the far-flung future of the 1980s, and how robots cost “hundreds of thousands” of dollars. I guess Asimov could not have predicted how rapidly inflation would outpace technological development. The framing device is a reporter interviewing the world’s foremost robopsychologist, Susan Calvin, as she retires from a long career working for the world’s largest robot manufacturer. The actual stories are told in traditional third-person omniscient narrator. The structure of the stories does remove some of the suspense because Susan directs the reporter to talk to the main characters, so the reader knows despite the terrible situation in the story, those characters will survive.
Interestingly enough, while all artificial intelligence is based on a “positronic brain,” no one seems to know exactly how they work. The characters understand how they’re built (obviously, because they can be mass manufactured), but no one seems to understand the exact physical principles which govern the sophisticated machine they just built. I suppose it helps avoid a lot of technobabble, but I also see why society would be really hesitant to accept A.I. if even the most knowledgeable people creating it when asked how it works just shrug and say, “Heck if I know.”
I have to admit, some people might find the stories boring, especially knowing that many of the main characters survive. There’s some good action, but there’s a lot of philosophy. Asimov famously created the “Three Laws of Robotics,” which is a damn good idea when dealing with something that is as intelligent as a human being and as durable as an armored truck. Basically, the stories acknowledge robots are superior to humans in a whole lot of ways. Therefore, if there was no programming to tell the robots not to initiate the robot apocalypse, well, there’s Skynet for you. I’ve never understood why sci-fi stories that are set in the “real world” and presumably have access to Asimov’s works do not incorporate the three laws. Imagine how much trouble would have been avoided if Henry Pym had bothered to program Ultron correctly.
The evolution of artificial intelligence is a case study in the use and development of the Three Laws. Apparently, they aren’t as easy to implement as it seems and several strange situations arise because of the conflicting protocols. There’s some discussion of prejudice since robots are eventually for use on Earth. And there’s one story that describes the development of faster-than-light space travel (and the prank by the Brain that designed the ship). There’s also a story about a robot that attempts to determine, from first principles, the meaning of its own existence and if there is a god. There’s a story about a robot that had a modified form of the First Law (“Never harm a human”) and why that was such a very bad idea. Overall, the first robots were large, clumsy, and mute, but the stories end with a discussion of the Machines, which are giant brains created through an iterative process of ten steps of increasing complexity that control pretty much the entire world. The reporter correctly notes that is absolutely terrifying, but Dr. Calvin assures him that because of the implementation of the Three Laws, the world is in much better shape being run by A.I.s that can’t help but be moral than humanity.
That’s an interesting thought. I enjoyed the stories, and am now moving on to a murder mystery in which a robot apparently manages to murder a human despite the Three Laws. I like murder mysteries, and I like philosophical quandaries. Is Asimov for everyone? Probably not, but given what I grew up with, I like his work so far.