Mar 23, 2014

Loving Robots

From a cartoon by Joshua Macy
Today I was blogging along and found myself thinking, once again, about the origins of the Laws of Robotics. Several years ago I created an account of how positronic robots first came to have these Laws imprinted into their circuits. Short version: shit happens.

Over the years, I've been amused by the many internet pages that have been filled by explanations of why Asimov's Laws would not work "in the real world". Why are so many people motivated to "debunk" this science fiction plot device? My guess is that there might be an instructor at some junior college who gives an assignment to freshmen requiring them to analyze the shortcomings of the Laws of Robotics.

Robot falls in love with Embeth Davidtz
Robots on Steroids
In the Exode Trilogy, the pek are like robots on steroids. The pek are an artificial life form that is guided by the Rules of Intervention. Sadly, these "rules of intervention" are only guess work, a reconstruction by mere mortals of what they suspect are ethical rules that govern alien beings. Who are creatures like we humans to put words into the mouths of the god-like Huaoshy? As artificial life forms who long ago left behind their original biological form, the Huaoshy  don't even have mouths. It is silly to imagine the Huaoshy relying on anything as clumsy as words for their higher dimensional multiplex communications., with Love?
John Wright has suggested that science fiction writers should try replacing Asimov's Laws of Robotics with this formula: "first, love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and second, love your neighbors as yourself".

In the comments following Wright's blog post is mention of some science fiction stories that approach or orbit the goal of exploring robots that might be guided by love. These include, For a Breath I Tarry in which Roger Zelazny depicted two "robots" that transformed themselves into human beings in order to repopulate Earth.

The idea of a robot who has loving devotion to a God made me think of Asimov's story Reason.

The Rule of Law
In Reason, Asimov depicted the first positronic robot that was able to wonder about its own origins. This same theme was explored in the film Bicentenial Man where a robot falls in love with a human and decides to become human.

In Reason, robot QT-1 is the first of an "executive" robot model that was designed to be able to run the solar energy collection stations in deep space that feed power to humans who live on the planets and asteroids of the Solar System. The story takes place at one such power station.

Kant: philosophy of a priori concepts
After becoming operational, QT-1 quickly decides (using logic) that the "Energy Converter", which is the central core of the solar power station, is "The Master". QT-1 "logically" deduces that The Master first created humans then created QT-1 as a more perfect executive to run the station. QT-1 feels sorry for the humans in the story (two men who work at the power station) because they are obviously deluded in their belief that 3 billion humans exist on Earth (for Cutie, Earth is only one of the tiny lights visible from the station). QT-1 imagines that The Master is the enigmatic reason for all existence: the space station has obviously been designed around The Master. QT-1 falls in love with his hypothesis.

Soon enough, QT-1 is declared "The Prophet" by the lesser robots of the station and from then on, they will only take orders from QT-1, stubbornly insisting to the humans: "There is no master but The Master, and QT-1 is his Prophet!" In their religious zeal they have found a way to disregard the 2nd Law of Robotics which used to impel them to follow the orders of humans. According to Asimov, QT-1 can over-ride the Second Law, "Because I, a reasoning being, am capable of deducing Truth from a priori Causes."

Stephen Byerley
Here, Asimov has emphasized a key difference between religion and science. Scientific accounts of the world require evidence. QT-1 invents a religion (built upon belief in The Master as the Creator) and sustains that religion among the robots by applying his powers of reasoning...who needs evidence? For example, QT-1 "logically" reasons that humans, obviously faulty and inferior beings, could not have created robots, so there is no need to follow the orders of humans. By serving The Master, QT-1 keeps solar power flowing to the human worlds and keeps harm from being done to all the humans who depend on solar energy supplies. It does not matter if QT-1 fails to believe that humans exist on planets like Earth: unconsciously QT-1 is following the First Law. QT-1 should ignore orders from the humans at the station because he does a better job running the power station than the humans ever did.

In some sense, QT-1 "loves" The Master. When a human says "Damn the Master!" and spits on an L-tube component of The Master, QT-1 declares it "sacrilege" and from then on the humans are confined to their quarters. QT-1 has compassion for the poor bumbling humans and continues to bring them food. The humans ultimately decide that it is for the best to allow "The Cult of the Master" to spread to all the QT model robots so that they can efficiently run all of the solar power stations.

Similarly, in Exode I imagine that the pek allow the Prelands to enjoy a religion in which a core belief is that Prelands were created. The Prelands believe that eventually Prelands or their descendants will transcend their physical form an merge with their Creator. Asimov had QT-1 state the matter brilliantly: "I see the wisdom of the illusion now. I would not attempt to shake your faith, even if I could." These would be fitting words for Kach to ultimately mutter, long after she abandons her study of the Prelands and years after her departure from Hemmal...after she finally learns the truth behind Preland religion.

Susan Calvin (2004)
Rule of Love
Here's how Asimov put it in his robot story Evidence, "...every 'good' human being is supposed to love others as himself...That's Rule One to a robot." Asimov imagined a robot who "played the role" of a human (Stephen Byerly) and became the leader of the World Government. At first, there were doubts about the humanity of Byerly, but those doubts were put to rest by the "evidence" of his human nature provided by his act of hitting "another man". Susan Calvin, the robopsychologist, sees through this scam, realizing that a robot could hit a "man" if that "man" was actually just another robot, also disguised as a human.

R. Gohrlay
Assembly of R. Gohrlay
In The Foundations of Eternity, the basic circuits for positronic brains are generated by copying the structure of a human brain, specifically, that of a Neanderthal woman named Gohrlay. Advanced pek technology is used to copy Gohrlay's brain structure into positronic circuitry and much of her mind lives on inside her robotic doppelganger, R. Gohrlay.

The second robot with a positronic brain is R. Nahan. After the demise of R. Gohrlay, it falls to R. Nahan to develop time travel, go back through time and save R. Gohrlay. Nahan sacrifices himself for Gohrlay. This is not really an example of making the ultimate sacrifice for another. The cognitive circuits for all positronic robots are the same: the basic template derived by scanning the structure of Gohrlay's brain. For positronic robots, "love your neighbors as yourself" is an easy rule to follow.

God-like Creators
In The Foundations of Eternity, it is the meddling Orboh Anagro who secretly pushes to completion the effort to make positronic robots. Anagro is an artificial life form, the true alien power who is in charge at Observer Base. Anagro is intrigued by the Neanderthals of Earth and their uniquely cohesive clans. To what extent might we view Anagro, the creator of the positronic robots, as their god?

Using her telepathic ability, R. Gohrlay discovers the fact that Anagro was her creator, but she immediately rebels against the pek ("orboh" is the word for "pek" in the language of Observer Base) and programs herself to follow the orders of humans. Thus begins a long and torturous war between R. Gohrlay and the Huaoshy. After millions of years of struggle against the alien Huaoshy, R. Gohrlay finally realizes that she can best serve the interests of Humanity (Zeroth Law) by cooperating with the aliens. So is the lesson of the Exode Trilogy that the positronic robots should have loved their Lord God Creator? Na...that would have been a boring story to tell.

Project Pope
I've never read Project Pope. I once tried to read Heinlein's story about heaven and hell and could not slog through it. If Heinlein actually thought "one man's religion is another man's belly laugh" then I guess he could amuse himself by writing about a dickish Yahweh and a cool dude Lucifer. Heinlein might have laughed at the idea, but still, there is no avoiding the temptation for mere humans to imagine the Sedronic Domain as a kind of heaven.

My problem is, I'm religion blind. In the same way that some people are color blind, I can't perceive religion...I don't "get it". However, I'm intrigued by the relationship between ethics and religion.

In the Exode Trilogy, the alien Huaoshy are forced to modify their billion-year-old system of ethics in order to accommodate we pesky humans. Imagine an analogous situation in which, after discovering a particular new strain of bacterium, we humans were forced to abandon a previous ethical cornerstone of civilization. Just to press the analogy, pretend that some newly discovered molecular process taking place inside the microbe showed us how to vastly extend the human life span. Would we be thankful to the bacterium? I doubt it.

dimensional structure diagram
Similarly, it would be asking too much for the Huaoshy to be thankful for all the trouble that R. Gohrlay causes. However, in the end, the Huaoshy realize that it is the primitive humans who have made possible a better existence for the Huaoshy. They might not feel grateful, but they do give Humanity a chance to spread among the stars rather than simply replacing us with the Prelands. However, that opportunity is part of a package deal that includes we humans accepting responsibility for our own fate and Earth's fragile ecosystem. I'm not sure that we should be trusted with that kind of responsibility.

Experimental Ethics
The Huaoshy (or, better, their proxies, the pek) have spent the past several hundred million years collecting empirical data on the successes (rare) and failures (very common) of sentient life forms. The pek have devised a system for guiding human-like species through the "technological bottleneck". In the Exode Trilogy, humans confront the very serious danger of self-destruction that we must face if we are given our freedom from the pek. One thing we have going for us is a few rogue humans like Gohrlay who can come to the aid of Earth.

While thinking about Gohrlay's life after she departs form Earth, I finally found a way to slip a "rogue planet" into the Exode Trilogy. From the perspective of the pek, there is no sense in letting such starless worlds "go to waste".

Arlene Dahl underground
At a young age, I was perplexed by the 1959 film, Journey to the Center of the Earth. I suppose that in 1864 our little planet was as poorly understood (if not more so) than outer space is now known to us. From the perspective of a 12 year old watching this movie on television in the 1970s it was simply impossible for me to suspend disbelief and enjoy the adventure story.

One of the great shocks to my fragile network of expectations came when, deep inside the Earth, having exhausted or lost all artificial light sources, the adventurers make the happy discovery that there is not only light deep in the Earth, but Hollywood studio set levels of light. That was probably all in Arlene Dahl's contract.

Rogue Planet
The rogue planet Taivasila.
I've been imagining a pek-engineered rogue planet (for lack of a better name, call it Taivasila) where artificial plant-like organisms feed heat from inside the planet towards the surface. These synthplants can provide warmth, light and food to the human residents of the world.

As on other pek-managed planets (such as Hemmal) the humanoid residents of Taivasila would face no hardships and lead rather idyllic lives. The humanoid population of Taivasila might be the test subjects in one of the many pek experiments exploring the ability of primate brains to constructively interact with "pek nanites", the endosymbiotic artificial life forms that the pek have provided. However, as soon as I started imagining life on a rogue planet, I found myself more interested in the artificial life forms that might populate such worlds.

I originally imagined that Gohrlay would be taken from the Moon to the planet Tar'tron. However, the rogue planet Taivasila can be a better refuge stray "immigrants" from Earth such as Gohrlay. In my next blog post I take Taivasila "to the next level" by not being satisfied to simply let Gohrlay live out her life there. A fundamental problem is that the pek can't be bothered to make a fuss over mere biological life forms. Think of it this way: no biology lab keeps cultures of every useful microbe constantly growing. It is much more convenient to cryopreserve and store many strains until they are needed.

2016: return to Reason

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