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Dec 20, 2009

Too much of a good thing?

Isaac Asimov imagined a future in which robots served to help humans reach the stars. Then, it all went terribly wrong. On the spacer worlds, there were more robots than people and finally, humans mutated into a new form of life that lost the desire to spread itself across the galaxy.

In Asimov's future history, when it comes to robots, there can be too much of a good thing. Not because robots turn into rampaging monsters, but, rather, because they create an environment within which humans fail to thrive.

So, what is a robot graced with the Zeroth Law and telepathy to do? Of course, Giskard must find a way to balance humanity on a knife edge between too many and too few robots. Twenty thousand years later we find Daneel still playing the balancing game and just enough robots on hand so that Hari Seldon can fall in love with one who helps him create the Foundations.
Thus, Asimov told the story of how robots helped humanity through two chaotic attractors (the Earth/Spacer conflict and the Foundation/Galaxia vortex), but what about the story of the origin of the very first positronic robot? How was the first robot with human-like behavior created?

We might assume that the very first positronic brain was built by U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., but did Asimov ever really show how to pull that rabbit out of a hat? And what about the Laws of Robotics? Asimov showed the "first three" Laws arriving wholly formed and then the "Zeroth" law being artificially grafted on later.

The Start of Eternity gives a more detailed account of the origins of the Laws and the first human-like robot with a positronic brain. The key assumption is that there was never any group of computer nerds who sat down, at U.S. Robots or any where else, and just "slapped together" a robotic brain that could produce human behavior. And just as Daneel was the "story behind the story" of how the Foundation was created, another telepathic robot, R. Rycleu, was working secretly on Earth in the 20th century to make it possible for positronic brains to be manufactured on Earth. But those were not the first positronic brains.

R. Rycleu is introduced in the first two chapters of The Start of Eternity. The story of the true origin of positronic brains is shown right at the start and then the origin of the Laws of Robotics and telepathy is described in the final part of The Start of Eternity.

Images. Top: the creation of the R. Gohrlay, the first positronic robot with human-like cognition. Credits. The second image shows the structure of time in the Foundation Reality. Larger version.

Related Reading: Time Travel, five years ahead.

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