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Of Robots and Empire Asimov

Of Robots and Empire Asimov

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Published by Sally Morem
In this essay, I critique Isaac Asimov's Robot and Empire future histories and stories. By using Leonard Read's famous economic essay, "I, Pencil," I describe the self-organizing character of large, extended orders of human beings, so large and complex that no Artificial Intelligence, no matter how powerful, and no Plan, no matter the genius of its instantiator, could possibly mastermind it.
In this essay, I critique Isaac Asimov's Robot and Empire future histories and stories. By using Leonard Read's famous economic essay, "I, Pencil," I describe the self-organizing character of large, extended orders of human beings, so large and complex that no Artificial Intelligence, no matter how powerful, and no Plan, no matter the genius of its instantiator, could possibly mastermind it.

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Published by: Sally Morem on Jun 11, 2008
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07/27/2013

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Of Robots, Empires and Pencils:
The Worlds of Isaac Asimov Reconsidered
Reviewed by Sally Morem
Human society is the most astonishing and perplexing of all theuniverse's life-forming, self-organizing processes in its ability totransform the creative and mundane acts of thinking beings intosystems that span the globe and stretch out into space.Isaac Asimov, as a writer and a man, was vitally concerned with theworkings of human societies. He dreamed of far-flung interstellarempires run by fragile and misguided humans, with robots made intheir image, guiding them away from destruction. But, for all theirimaginative world building, Asimov's Foundation and Robots series of stories and novels must be considered magnificent failures."Magnificent" in the sense of the boldness with which Asimov describedgalactic civilization without all the hackneyed, Buck Rogers slam-bangspace fighting against bug-eyed aliens. "Failures" in the sense that acentralized galactic empire run by a planet-bound bureaucracy and afuture Earth wholly controlled by robotic minds stretch believability tothe breaking point and beyond. But, to be fair, let's try to understandthe literary strictures Asimov had to face as a young writer in the SFgenre of the 1940s.Let's return to the time when pulp fiction and space opera ruled themagazine and bookstore racks, when daring spacemen didn't hesitate toreach for their blasters when facing strangers--either aliens or humans--and never failed to avoid the use of subtlety in any given opportunity, atime when enormous galactic battles raged on unabated for no apparentreason.
 
Doc Smith's Lensmen series was only the most famous of the "thud andblunder" school of SF writing. Interstellar war was seen as an enlargedversion of pirate battles on the high seas. War as fun and games, and notas the desperate struggle for the survival of a people and a culture thatit really is.Instead of the Empire of Force, held together by death rays andLensmen, Asimov was attempting to craft an Empire of Reason. And not just that, but an Empire guided by a Plan--which was, in fact, an elegantmathematical equation, one which could accurately predict whattrillions of human beings would be doing for centuries. These storieswere later collected in "Foundation," "Foundation and Empire," and"Second Foundation"--The Foundation Trilogy.And at the same time, in a different series of stories, Asimov wasbucking the hoary stereotype of the malevolent robot. Susan Calvin,Robo-psychologist for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., describesthe development of robots in the 21st century in "I, Robot," a collectionof these stories.Each robot has its own personality and faces its own rather unusualchallenge. Robbie, devoted nursemaid to a little girl; Speedy, tornbetween self-preservation and obedience to a lawful order given by ahuman being; Cutie, a would-be theologian with a truly unique view of the universe and his place in it; Dave, who can't control his "fingers"during emergencies; and Herbie, the mind-reading robot who makes apromise he can't keep.To guide the thoughts and actions of his personable robots, Asimov setsup the Three Laws of Robotics— 1. A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow ahuman being to come to harm.2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except wheresuch orders would conflict with the First Law.3. A robot shall protect its own existence as long as such protection doesnot conflict with the First or Second Law.
 
 —and then, gleefully, proceeds to knock them down.We discover that a full understanding of the morals and ethicsincorporated in the Three Laws is a bit more elusive than a surfacereading would indicate. Asimov's stories demonstrate the "fuzzy logic"inherent in such words as "harm," "protect," and "obey." These wordsseem straightforward enough, but they're actually laden with semanticland mines where the unwary step at their own peril. Asimov admittedthat his Laws were deliberately designed with not-so-obvious loopholesin order to create artistic "wiggle room" for conflict needed to createinteresting stories.Asimov's short stories and novels took the science fiction world bystorm, and rightly so. Here we have cute, lovable robots, sometimesbrilliant, sometimes bumbling, but always with a new slant on what itmeans to be "human." And here we have a man, not a man of action,but a mathematician, a thinker, as hero. I speak of none other than HariSeldon. Seldon and a small group of psychologists developed apsychological profile of the galactic masses, a science of statistics calledpsychohistory which "deals with the reactions of human conglomeratesto fixed social and economic stimuli..."Any ordinary person, science fiction fan or not, would find such claimsto be astonishingly bold. How could anyone, no matter his intellectualachievements, have the audacity to think he could envision the futurehistory of trillions or quadrillions, let alone assume he knew anythingworth knowing about their present lives? This is enough to do seriousdamage to the reader's ability to suspend disbelief, a skill required forenjoying any kind of fiction, especially science fiction. Asimov attemptedto cover himself (and Seldon) by taking great pains to explain thatpsychohistory was never applicable to individuals, that individuals wereso variable, so individual, that they were fundamentally unpredictable."It [the Plan] could not handle too many independent variables. Hecouldn't work with individuals over any length of time; any more thanyou could apply the kinetic theory of gases to single molecules. Heworks with mobs, populations of whole planets, and only blind mobswho do not possess foreknowledge of the results of their own actions. "

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