Feb 19, 2017

Cave Robot

from the Science Fiction Book Club
I've long resisted the temptation to read the Caves of Steel. The issues of Galaxy magazine that contain the original version (October, November and December 1953) are available at the Internet Archive. I could no longer avoid looking at how Isaac Asimov had first written the positronic robot Daneel into existence.

John Berkey cover art
3 Shocks
The first page of The Caves of Steel delivers three shocks. Firstly, the ghastly line drawings by Edmund Emshwiller. They set the tone: Asimov is dragging me into a dystopic future where the people of Earth all reside in their prison cells.

Secondly, poor Sammy the robot getting shouted at by police detective Baley. Baley is angry that a human lost his job to Sammy who is now employed to do the job of delivering messages. Here in 2017, readers have to wonder: why must a walking messenger -either human or robotic- deliver a message from the police commissioner to a detective? Poor Sammy.

cover art by David Mattingly
Thirdly, Baley's thoughts are occupied by his nicotine addiction. Will his supply of pipe tobacco last until his next ration arrives? It is only page one of the story and already everything about this future Earth feels wrong, twisted, icky.

It is tempting to switch off and start reading the story that David Mattingly was reading in 1987 when he made the book cover art that is shown to the right. Mattingly's atomic rock band is a future I might want to read about! But in the end, Asimov finds a way for Humanity to escape from these horrific caves of steel.

Asimov tells us that in his imagined future of The Caves of Steel, we are in a future age of atomic power, a time when people look back upon the Coal Century with dismay. Still, New York City is not under water... maybe use of atomic power saved Earth from global warming? We are told that Earth's vast oil deposits have been pumped dry and people still use coal as a carbon source for plastics manufacturing. Asimov's future Cities are giant caves, sealed up with no windows and bulging at the seems with unemployed people and unwanted robots.

The Spacer enclave of Earth
In Asimov's future, it is tempting to view detective Baley and all the Earthlings as losers. The winners of this imagined future are the Spacers, those adventurers who long ago left Earth behind and spread to other planets of the galaxy. Well, almost left. There is still a small Spacer enclave on Earth (Spacetown) located ..... where else? In the wild West, across the river from Manhattan.

Add caption
8 Billion people. Baley moans about how Earth does not have room for its 8 billion people. "Moaning like that was a built-in facet of human nature." Here in 2017 we are almost to the 8 billion human population of Earth that Asimov imagined.

Daneel's crowd control
Asimov tells us that the entire future of the galaxy hangs in the balance, but more importantly, if the murder case is solved then Baley will get a promotion. So when Baley is forced to work together with a Spacer partner, he is willing to do his best... even if that partner is a robot.

Daneel has been designed and built so as to pass as an Earthling by his master. Daneel was created by Dr. Sarton, a sociologist from the exoplanet Aurora who wanted to use Daneel as a tool to study Earth culture. But now Sarton has been murdered.

For some unexplained reason, rather than start work on the murder case, Baley immediately takes Daneel home for dinner and a visit with his wife and son. On the way, they run into a near riot over robots being employed as shoe salesmen. Daneel pulls out his blaster and threatens to kill anyone who does not disperse and get about their business.

I think Emshwiller missed the point when he drew Daneel's face in the same freaky way as the three shoe-selling robots of Earth (image to the left). On Earth, the robots were made to be easily identifiable as robots. In contrast, Daneel's appearance was human: modeled after that of his creator, Dr. Sarton.

Carbon-iron collaboration. Interior art by Edmund Emshwiller
Daneel explains to Baley that the Spacers have achieved a viable C/Fe society, successfully mixing together humans and robots. In contrast, Earthlings resent the introduction of more robots into their miserable over-populated and resource-poor society.

Baley feels that he must solve the murder mystery and not let Daneel figure out the case first. It would be a disaster to let it be demonstrated that a robot could do his job better than a human! Baley might end up back in the miserable barracks of the unemployed, where he started his life. At the end of Part 1, Baley accuses Daneel of being Sarton.

Daneel proves he is a robot
Part 2
Daneel is able to quickly disprove Baley's hypothesis by displaying his internal structure: steel "bones" with a covering of skin.

Another Spacer, Dr. Falstofe explains to Baley why Spacers are on Earth and what they hope to accomplish. Both the 50 Spacer worlds and Earth are dead ends; their people have no interest in colonizing new planets. Earthlings are afraid to leave their caves and the Spacers are too comfortable on their worlds to ever want to settle new planets. Exploration of the galaxy has stopped. A few people from Aurora hope to stimulate Earthlings to start colonizing new worlds.

inside Spacetown
Along the way in Part 2 of The Caves of Steel we are told why it is that human workers always get replaced by human-like robots. For example, why a human shaped robot should drive a car. Here in our world of 2017, computerized cars don't have a human-shaped robot in the driver's seat.

In Part 2, the false trails required for a murder mystery are raised and dismissed. Baley suspects Daneel of being involved in Sarton's murder. Daneel suspects that Baley's wife is part of a cabal that murdered Sarton.

caves of steel
We are told that Daneel can carry out "cerebroanalysis" on people by measuring their brain waves. Daneel apparently clears the Commissioner, stating that he could not have personally murdered Sarton even though he was in Spacetown at the time of the murder.

The only theory left standing for the death of Sarton is that he was killed by someone who walked through the countryside and secretly entered Spacetown. However, other possibilities such as mistaken identity or the possibility of suicide would seem to remain.

Robophobia: "Keep that thing away from me!"
Part 3
The wife of Baley is not connected to Sarton's murder, but she does provide a clue that leads to the robophobic yeast farmer, Clousarr, A Medievalist who hates that Earthlings are trapped in the caves of the Cities and wants to return Earth to the ways of the past.

Many Earthlings have Medievalist sympathies, including the police Commissioner. Baley himself comes under suspicion.

Finally, After several days of investigating the Death of Sarton, Baley finally looks at film of the crime scene.

Viewing the scene of Sarton's death. Interior art by Edmund Emshwiller.

cover art by Stephen Youll
You have to read the story to find out all of the false leads and the ultimate solution to the mystery. Baley is able to see a clue at the crime scene that solves the murder case.

Beyond Sarton's death is the larger matter of Humanity's future and continued colonization of the galaxy. During the investigation Baley inadvertently shows Dr. Falstofe that that problem has already been solved. Medievalist sentiment on Earth will provide the needed new generation of exoplanet settlers, including Baley's own son.

In The Caves of Steel, it is interesting to see Daneel equipped with a built-in "cell phone" and able to "read minds" by technology-assisted electroencephalography. Too bad Asimov was not able to envision a future when people would carry around phone/computers and computers would be embedded in machines such as cars. Still, even after 55 years Asimov's story is not made completely irrelevant by technological changes.

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Feb 18, 2017


Previously I posted some comments on Part 1 of Isaac Asimov's novel The Gods Themselves and here I want to finish up with the task of gazing back at the first science fiction novel that I ever read. I use the the word "task" because after 40 years I had the same reaction to Part 2 of the story today as I did when I first read it: waiting rather impatiently for Asimov to stop writing about alien orgasms and tell us how the aliens managed to contact Earthlings across the barrier between our universe and the parallel universe of the aliens.

Hard Ones
If the universe of the aliens has a stronger strong nuclear force than what we experience here in our universe, would that mean that the alien life forms should have "more empty space" in the material of their bodies than we do? Asimov's aliens can "attenuate" and then merge the material structure of their bodies with each-other.

alien orgasm
In The Gods Themselves, Asimov described two types of aliens: 1) the soft ones and the hard ones. The soft ones can merge their bodies. While doing so, they can become pregnant and then generate offspring: new soft ones. After producing one or two "batches" of new soft ones, they merge their bodies one last time and are then transformed into a new life form: a hard one. Part 2 of The Gods Themselves is the story of the origins of the new hard one who discovers how to make contact with humans.

Asimov suspected that many of his own story ideas could be traced back to roots among the pulp magazines he read during the 1930s. In 1932, "The Dimension of Chance" was published in Wonder Stories. Imagine the young Isaac Asimov trying to make sense of such stories in which people would "cross over" into alternative universes where the laws of physics (as known to us) did not apply.

Physicists started talking seriously about parallel universes in the 1950s. Andrei Sakharov's life ran parallel to that of Asimov. After his work developing nuclear bombs, Sakharov did some theoretical work on parallel universes in an attempt to account for the apparent imbalance between matter and antimatter in our universe.

In the mid-1950s Hugh Everett first imagined and published the central idea of what became the "many worlds"  interpretation of the mathematical theory of quantum states. In these interpretations, each quantum state with a non-zero probability is assumed to be equally real, even if not observed.

image source
Mathematicians and physicists have always been susceptible to Platonic thinking. They often don't make a distinction between using mathematics to understand reality and assuming that reality is a mathematical abstraction.

Asimov was mostly a science popularizer during the 1960s. Asimov's big (three volumes) book on physics (Understanding Physics) was written not too long before The Gods Themselves. In the third volume of Understanding Physics, published in 1966, Asimov provided an account of how physicists had discovered particles such as protons, neutrinos and pions. Pions are mediators of the strong force that holds together nucleons. He briefly mentioned that physicists were interested in the possibility of "parallel realities".

In 1968, Larry Niven had published  "All the Myriad ways", a story that assumes the discovery of a technology that allows Earthlings to start visiting other parallel universes that arise spontaneously at each "branch point" of our historical timeline. As a student of mathematics who started writing science fiction in the 1960s, Niven became one of the popularizers of physics and the "many worlds"  interpretation of the wave function.

The Exode Saga
In his science fiction novel Contact, Carl Sagan imagined that aliens might use advanced technology to create new universes with precisely tuned natural laws. For the Exode Saga, I imagine that the Huaoshy are able to alter the physical laws of the universe, but I've never tried to imagine how that might be done.

In The Gods Themselves, Asimov used an imaginary future technology, the "pionizer", to open connections between parallel universes. When the pionizer was used, that allowed leakage and mixing  of the physical properties of the connected universes.

In Part 2 of  The Gods Themselves, Asimov imagined that the alien "emotional" named Dua could attenuate and spread out and collect information like an antenna. Was Selena (in Part 3) able to do something similar? Were Dua and Selena telepathically in contact with each other? Once a "pionizer" existed in one universe, was it inevitable that another would be made in our universe?

"Sense from Thought Divide"
Before moving to India in 1974, Rupert Sheldrake began thinking about the idea of "morphic resonance". He was influenced by the book Matter and Memory. In the early 1970s, when Asimov wrote The Gods Themselves, all sorts of strange attempts were being made to link particle physics to various ancient philosophical traditions and religious beliefs such as the widespread belief in non-material souls.

Foundation and Earth
As another example of the "weird" speculative climate in the 1970s, former astronaut Edgar Mitchell helped found the Institute of Noetic Sciences. Mitchell claimed to have had a mystical experience during his flight to the Moon in 1971.

I've long been puzzled by the prominent role that Asimov gave to intuition in some of his stories. Back in 2010 I blogged about the purported intuition of Golan Trevize at the end of Asimov's Foundation saga.

It is a basic fact of human brain physiology that we can know things without understanding how we know them. Still, it is endlessly tempting for science fiction writers to imagine future science that would account for mysteries like telepathy or intuition. Asimov was audacious in suggesting that it might be possible to genetically engineer humans to be "intutionists".

Weibliche Intuition
Related reading: "Feminine Intuition" (1969). Asimov manages to combine his fear of flying, interstellar space travel and his obsession with robots in a Susan Calvin short story. What is the role of randomness in human creativity? Could creative robots be manufactured if an element of random chance were allowed to influence their positronic pathways? Could such "intuition" be super-sized and result in abilities that we might call "genius"? Should we call such a robot "intuitive" even if that is only a "feel good" label meant to disguise the fact that a mechanical genius was made, a thinking device that can out-think humans? Can bumbling humans recognize the difference between clear-headed thinking and reasoning and what people are tempted to call "intuition"?

1985 edition
In 1969, Asimov imagined that there might be a way for astronomers to predict which stars host a habitable planet. As early as 1952 it was realized that in principle exoplanets could be detected by 1) measuring periodic decreases in the amount of light arriving from distant stars (transit method) or 2) by wavelength shifts in a star's light (Doppler spectroscopy) and 3) by direct visualization of light reflecting off an exoplanet (with a giant telescope). Technological limitations delayed exoplanet detection until the 1990s, shortly after Asimov's death.

Did Asimov take seriously his depiction of how to create a "genius" robot by giving it "intuition"? In the 1984 book Machines that Think, Asimov wrote: "If insight, intuition, creativity, the ability to view a problem as a whole and guess the answer by the 'feel' of the situation is a measure of intelligence, computers are very unintelligent indeed. Nor can we see right now how this deficiency in computers can be easily remedied, since human beings cannot program a computer to be intuitive or creative for the very good reason that we do not know what we ourselves do when we exercise these qualities."

Next: Isaac Asimov's novel: The Caves of Steel
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