They, the robots

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(Review of I, Robot – a novel by Isaac Asimov. 5*/5*)

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“If one and a half chickens lay one and a half eggs in one and a half days, how many eggs will none chickens lays in nine days?”

This is incredible, the best of all science fiction I have read yet. As Fredrick Pohl put it:

“A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”

Asimov not only does that – and he goes one step further, he proposes a solution for the metaphorical traffic jam – in this case ethical issues related to AI, in form of his popular ‘three laws of robotics’ :
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 orders given to 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.

The laws, as you can see, have nothing to do with the mechanics but rather their psychology – robo-psychology. They are unalterable set of priories that a robot (or a machine in general) must follow while making a moral choice; and thus not letting them cause any harm to humanity (remember HAL 9000!).

As Calvin explained, a it is basis of many human ethical codes:

“Robots are essentially decent.”

and

“But you see you, you can’t distinguish between a robot and the very best of humanity.”

Asimov creates a fictional history of sorts through nine stories told by Susan Calvin, robo-psychologist. The stories have all the pluses – beautiful language, light humor, page-turning suspense, some freshening ideas and takes on morality. The history is complete with ‘technological singularity’ being achieved and humanoids being made – and yet since those laws are very root of it, AI can’t harm humans.

wallSince robots’ psychology is similar to humans, many a problems faced with them offer insights into human psyche. For instance, my favorite robot was Cutie (overall second only to Marvin – the robot with existential issues from Hitchhiker’s guide), a skeptic robot who won’t believe his makers and rather reach his own conclusions:

“Since when is the evidence of our senses any match for the clear light of rigid reason?”

And if it still didn’t remind you of Descartes:

“I have spent these last two days in concentrated introspection” said Cutie, “and the results have been most interesting. I began at one sure assumption I felt permitted to make. I, myself, exist, because I think-“

However, it was more fun when he turned religious:

“There is no Master but the Master and QT-1 is his prophet.”

Though what makes it awesome is that neither his skepticism nor his religious mania stopped him from doing what he was supposed to be doing. It is this kind of insights I loved. Where robots face minor dilemmas, they develop defense mechanisms – a sense of humor. Upon facing major dilemmas, they may act like drunk or go mad. Where a robot started understanding human feelings – so help me, he learned to lie.


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