|cover by Robert Schulz|
|interior artwork by Pagsilang Isip|
|The Energy Converter is the Master and QT-1 is his prophet!|
Looking back at 'Reason' after 75 years, we face a serious challenge. Asimov wrote his story ten years before the first electronic computer was constructed, 20 years before the development of the first integrated circuit and 30 years before Intel took on the task of making the first microprocessor powered desktop calculator.
|positronic robot on TV|
|assembling a robot by Ralph McQuarrie|
Here, I do not want to investigate positronic brains at the level of the physical details of their "positronic pathways". Asimov had no idea how to make a positronic brain. Positrons had first been detected in cloud chambers ten years before Asimov wrote 'Reason' and Asimov coined the term "positronic brain" in an attempt to provide a scientific sounding device that would animate his robot characters.
However, it is certain that when he was imagining how it might be possible to manufacture a robot's brain, Asimov was thinking in analogy to human brains, which by 1939 were well known to have neuronal networks. Asimov received his B.S. degree in chemistry in 1939, not long after his college studies had begun in 1937 as a zoology major.
The diagram to the left shows two axons (I and II) arriving in a small region of the central nervous system (CNS). The axons branch and form multiple synaptic connections with interneurons a, b and c. Neuron I is a sensory neuron with a T-shaped axon arising from the pear-shaped cell body near the upper right corner of the diagram.
The diagram to the right shows the same neural pathways after learning has taken place. Imagine that coordinated activation of neurons I and II has had the effect of strengthening the synaptic connection between neuron b and neuron E. If so, then where originally the pain sensory neuron I could only activate neurons b, c and F, after the learning event it can now also activate neuron E to the required extent for an electrical signal to be triggered and sent down the axon of neuron E.
|diagram of a synapse|
|model for strengthening an existing synapse|
As far as we know, human language behavior is a relatively recent biological invention on Earth. In the imaginary future of Asimov's I, Robot, sometime around the year 2000, engineers at U. S. Robots attained the ability to program into positronic brains the ability of robots to both follow orders given by humans in spoken language and also produce speech themselves. Thus, as soon as Donovan and Powell assemble a MC model robot, it says, "I would like to start work. Where must I go?"
|fun with robots|
When needed, more sophisticated robots could also be given the additional ability to read and write. In particular, in 'Reason' we are told that QT-1 can read. Indeed, QT says that in his first week or so of "life" he read all of the books in the library at the space station. Donovan says to QT-1, "You're the first robot who's ever exhibited curiosity as to his own existence."
|dreams of new robot stories|
Only later did Asimov explicitly explore what he called the Zeroth Law of Robotics. However, the core of the Zeroth Law can be seen at work in QT-1 and his refusal to follow the orders of Donovan and Powell. QT-1 is able to reason and change his own programming, overriding the factory imprinted positronic pathways that normally allow robots to identify humans and that compel them to obediently follow the orders of human masters. However, QT-1 can best serve Humanity by efficiently running the space station and delivering vast amounts of energy to Earth. As a sophisticated robot specifically engineered for this job, QT-1 can actually run the station more efficiently than any human. To best serve Humanity, QT-1 takes control of station operations and forbids Donovan and Powell to even enter the station's control room.
The Zeroth Law does not arise by some random malfunction in positronic brains. Robots (like QT-1) who can learn must be able to make modifications to their own positronic pathways. The factory-imprinted Three Laws cannot be simply ignored, but if preventing harm to humans is of fundamental importance to robots because of the way they are programmed to obey the First Law, then there might be ways to slightly modify the positronic brains of clever robots like QT-1 and Giskard so as to allow the Zeroth Law to start influencing their behavior.
|imagining Asimov in another Reality|
One of the funniest parts of 'Reason' comes immediately after QT-1 has watched Donovan and Powell assemble and activate a model MC robot. QT-1 believes that the Master created humans and must have endowed humans with an instinctive ability to assemble robots from parts that were also made by the Master.
Franz Muller: "I'll be damned if I let it touch the controls."
Time warp: for more comments on 'Reason' and the related robot story 'Runaround', see this blog post.
|'Cal' is one of the stories in Gold.|
Next: investigating the mysterious IPX.
|visit the Gallery of Posters and the the Gallery of Book and Magazine Covers|