Dec 11, 2009


Isaac Asimov grew up amidst the high unemployment of the Great Depression and I wonder how that influenced his science fiction stories which depict the rise and fall of robots on Earth. Will people always welcome and make use of machines with human-like abilities or will humans eventually feel so threatened by them that laws will be made to prevent us from having to compete against truly intelligent machines?

So far our robotic machines have mostly taken over the more dull, repetitive and dangerous jobs. I think this article does a good job of summarizing the trend. Whenever machines replace human laborers there always seems to be more work for people to do. The shifting of people to new jobs is facilitated by putting more of our resources into the development of an educated work force that can do more than just simple robotic tasks. However, we have not yet crossed the threshold that Asimov imagined, that magic point where robots become as intelligent and as cognitively flexible as humans.

Asimov imagined important roles for robots, such as helping with dangerous tasks during the initial exploration of outer space. He wrote a story (Escape!) about a "supercomputer" with a positronic brain that was responsible for inventing the "hyperdrive" that makes interstellar travel possible. Ultimately, robots were written out of the daily lives of the humans in Asimov's future history and by the Foundation Era, robots were the stuff of legends. That rise and fall of positronic brains and robots in his fiction reminds me of how Asimov used his time travel novel, The End of Eternity, as a way to write time travel out of his fictional universe.

Apparently John Campbell had a major influence on Asimov and the kinds of science fiction stories he wrote. Asimov started his writing career with stories about a galaxy that contained alien beings and his robot stories were filled with robots who were smarter and more decent than humans. Campbell put an end to all that by insisting that humans always come out on top. So, Asimov switched to stories about a Galactic Empire that had only humans...the robots and aliens were dropped.

Decades later, when Campbell was dead and Asimov returned to his "future history", he wrote robots into the Foundation saga even though the first three books in the Foundation Series made no mention of robots. Asimov showed R. Daneel Olivaw secretly guiding humanity, first towards the formation of a Second Galactic Empire based on the Foundation and then, after abandoning the Foundation, towards Galaxia.

I've never been comfortable with the idea that humanity would simply pass laws forbidding the use of robots, causing them to slip into myth and legend. In The Start of Eternity a new reason is provided for why robots disappeared from human civilization when it spread across the galaxy.

Asimov's early short story about a telepathic robot named "Herbie" (Liar!) has always puzzled me. Herbie's telepathy was supposedly the result of a manufacturing error, an excuse that has always struck me as very odd. Asimov ended that story by simply saying that telepathic robots were useless, so the men in charge of manufacturing Herbie never tried to make another and they did not even try to understand how telepathy was possible. Ya, right.

Asimov later wrote about the origin of Giskard Reventlov, another telepathic robot. Asimov told the story of how a young woman, Vasilia, gave Giskard telepathic powers by playing around with "nice" patterns for positronic brain circuits. Again, miraculously, only one such telepathic robot was made.

Asimov showed Herbie trying to exercise mind control on a human...and failing. However, Giskard was able to not only communicate telepathically but also telepathically alter the thinking of humans...and other robots. In particular, Giskard could give other robots telepathic powers. Daneel became telepathic because Giskard passed on to him that ability.

In The Start of Eternity there is a new explanation for the origin of positronic brains with telepathic powers. I assume that the "manufacturing error" that gave Herbie telepathy must have been caused by another robot that already had telepathic ability and the ability to prevent the humans who knew about Herbie's telepathy from trying to understand telepathy.

In Foundation and Earth, Asimov described how it was possible to transfer Daneel's mind from one positronic brain to another. I assume that the first positronic robot with telepathy (Gohrlay) passed the power of telepathy on to all other robots who had "mentalic abilities". If so, then we need to ask how Herbie might have accidentally been given telepathic powers.

In The Start of Eternity, Gohrlay sends a telepathic robot named Rycleu to 20th century Earth. Rycleu helps humans develop the ability to manufacture positronic robots. Some humans inside U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. might have been allowed to imagine that they were responsible for designing the first positronic brain, but in reality Rycleu was the one who made positronic robots possible on Earth in the 20th century. Rycleu transferred portions of her own mind into the first positronic circuits that were made on Earth.

The question then becomes: what was the origin of the very first positronic brain? I assume that a biological brain, that of a Neanderthal, was used as the original template for positronic brains.

The reason that positronic robots go into hiding is because Gohrlay is doing battle against aliens from another galaxy (the Huaoshy). Gohrlay does not want the Huaoshy to learn about positronics. As depicted by Asimov in his book Second Foundation, telepaths are at risk of having their thought processes disrupted by "telepathic mind static weapons". Gohrlay must work secretly to develop Galaxia, a type of biological group mind that is resistant to "mind static" weapons. Gohrlay believes that only with the completion of Galaxia can humanity be safe from the Huaoshy.

Down with robots! Long live Galaxia! Ya, right.

Image. R. Giskard Reventlov.

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