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Sep 30, 2016

The Law-Giver

metafoundational
In two previous blog posts, I've been celebrating some of Isaac Asimov's early science fiction from the year 1941 and I touched on the origin of the 3 Laws of Robotics. Here, I want to look back at what Asimov told us about the origins of his positronic robots and the "laws" that guided the behavior of Asimov's fictional robots. In my next post, I'll give a similar retrospective treatment to Asimov's invented science of psychohistory.

1941 - 2016
In discussing his 3 laws of robotics, Asimov wrote: "Those laws, as it turned out (and as I could not possibly have foreseen), proved to be the most famous, the most frequently quoted, and the most influential sentences I ever wrote. (And I did it when I was twenty-one, which makes me wonder if I've done anything since to continue to justify my existence.)"

telepathy in 1940
In the 1930s, electronic digital computers were first being concieved by people like Claud ShannonKonrad Zuse and Alan Turing. At that same time, an imaginative teenager was reading fictional accounts of robots: Isaac Asimov began thinking about how it might become possible to actually build a machine that would have human-like form and the ability to behave like a person.

Asimov had no idea how an engineer might actually endow a robot with human-like behavioral abilities, so he invented a future technology that would solve all the technical problems: the positronic brain.

in the Ekcolir Reality
Thoughtful exposition vs
cartoon Sci Fi
 "Loving Robots"
In Asimov's first published robot story ('Robbie'), he introduced the idea that a robot could be programmed to love people (writing in 1939, he did not use the word "program"). Social mammals that invest heavily in their young have evolved brain systems that allow for social communication, learning from others and loving relationships. Some of the brain regions and genes that are important for such behavioral strategies in humans are being identified, and we can imagine programming future machines to share these human features. For John Campbell, the editor at Astounding, Asimov's story about a loving robot was too tame: NO SALE.

John Campbell
Sadly, as I've lamented previously, Asimov wasted no effort providing us with an account of how positronic brains were invented and programmed with the first 3 Laws of Robotics. Maybe in another Reality, Asimov was able to write his robot stories the way he wanted to, without having to put in contrived conflicts between humans and robots that would satisfy people like Campbell. Asimov greatly enjoyed creating his robot stories and he described The Bicentennial Man as #3 on his list of his most favorite stories.

Telepathic Robots
cover art by Michael Whelan
For me, the most startling idea that Asimov included in his robot stories was the ability of a positronic brain to have telepathic communication links to other brains. In 1941, the story 'Liar!' was published, featuring a telepathic robot. That first telepathic robot quickly got into trouble (lying to people so as to not hurt their feelings) and was destroyed.

Just the previous year, the story 'Slan' had been published in Astounding. I've never read 'Slan' nor any Superman comics. Asimov was influenced by the many fictional accounts of telepathy that he read as a boy and by John Campbell's editorial biases. As far as I can tell, in Vogt's fictional universe, the telepathic Slan are scheduled to arise by spontaneous "mutation" in the year 2071. Maybe after being bombarded for so long by innumerable stories about telepathy such as 'Slan' and even some comic books, Asimov felt compelled to create an alternative fictional universe in which "superpowers" such as telepathy were viewed from a more thoughtful perspective.

Telepathy: everyone is doing it! "The Case of the Living Trophies"
20th century Earth, where no author could resist the impulse to craft telepathic characters.

cover art by Michael Whelan
First there were the early Asimov robot stories such as "Liar!" and then a "second generation" of his "mature" robot stories. In 1958, Asimov began writing a sequel to The Naked Sun, but then he "got distracted" and moved on to other types of writing projects for the next 25 years.

42 years after he published 'Liar!', Asimov published The Robots of Dawn. In this new robot story, Asimov described conditions under which another robot (Giskard) could be endowed with telepathic powers, but keep "his" special abilities secret. This led to Giskard
1) being able to slowly and carefully learn how to use his telepathic powers to exercise "mind control" over humans without being caught in the act     and
2) discovering how to give other robots the required positronic brain circuits for telepathy and mind control. Giskard "died young", but he was able to pass his knowledge of telepathy on to Daneel.

Foundation and Earth
My copies of The Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire are Ballantine Books editions from 1984 and 1986 with the wonderful Michael Whelan cover art. Daneel was a "humaniform" robot, essentially indistinguishable from a human upon casual visual inspection.

An alternate Seldon
Zeroth Law
Daneel was able to reprogram his positronic brain, inserting the Zeroth Law: "A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm." Guided by the 4 Laws of Robotics and empowered by his telepathic abilities, Daneel guided Humanity through the next 20,000 years, during which 25,000,000 Earth-like planets of the galaxy were colonized by humans spreading outward from Earth.

Why did Daneel need to push and guide Hari Seldon towards the creation of psychohistory? I'll take up this question in my next blog post, but I'm not sure that Asimov ever provided we readers with a coherent account of why the telepathic Daneel worked so hard to bring into existence the new science of psychohistory and the two Foundations. In the absence of guidance from Asimov, we are free to invent our own reasons.

Susan Calvin at work. (source)
Asimov credited John Campbell as providing the stimulus that led to an explicit formulation of the 3 Laws of Robotics. In 'Liar!', Asimov had Susan Calvin remind her colleagues, Lanning and Bogert, of the First Law of Robotics and she pointed out the implications of that Law for a robot (Herbie, serial number RB-34) that could read the minds of humans.

fun with mutants
Years later, when listing the important steps in the creation of his positronic robot saga, Asimov described 'Liar!' as being particularly important for the introduction of Susan Calvin. In discussing the importance of 'Liar!', he did not even mention telepathy. I'm not sure that Asimov ever totally accommodated himself to the way that telepathy came to dominate his future history of robots and the Galactic Empire. To my knowledge, Asimov never apologized for how he depicted the origin of telepathy: as a kind of chance occurrence in the positronic brains of two robots. Yes, Asimov was "just a kid" when he first imagined a telepathic robot, but it saddens me that even after he completed his scientific training he never tried to come up with a better explanation for the appearance of telepathic powers in robots.

Foundations of Eternity
Asimov had great fun exploring the logical consequences of positronic brains that were constrained by the Laws of Robotics. He wrote that he enjoyed his robot stories more than his Foundation saga. Eventually, towards the end of his life, when Asimov inserted Daneel and telepathic robots into his Foundation saga, I suppose he simply could not resist the temptation to provide the saga of the Foundations with a telepathic robotic backstory. By the time that Asimov published Foundation and Earth (1986) he had followed out a logical chain of reasoning that resulted in the creation of Gaia, a telepathic planet-spanning group mind.


I believe that Asimov was brilliant in the way he linked positronic robots into his fictional future of the two Foundations. However, Asimov was trapped by his great creation (a future in which humans must merge into a galaxy-spanning group mind called Galaxia) and he found no way to move past Foundation and Earth.

The End of Eternity
I like to imagine that some aspects of Asimov's life were mere reflections of his past lives in Deep Time. Along these lines, I've even invented an earlier version of Gaia, a woman who existed in the First Reality.

Asimov in Deep Time
My diagnosis for the weaknesses that exist in Asimov's great future history of robots and the Foundation is that he was not bold enough. So, in my attempt to put a patch on Asimov's work, I've taken the liberty of inserting time travel into the story of Daneel and his telepathic manipulations of Humanity.

Next: investigating the origins of Psychohistory
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