Sep 30, 2016

The Law-Giver

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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Sep 25, 2016

Scientific Romance

1920s television in the Ekcolir Reality (source).
This year, I've been celebrating several science fiction-related anniversaries (200, 100, 50) and now it is time for 150.

Herbert George Wells
I've previously imagined the analogue of Herbert Wells (a woman named Hafren Wells) as a science fiction story teller in the Ekcolir Reality, a Reality where science fiction was almost exclusively of the "hard" variety, written by authors with training as scientists. In this blog post, I'm going to pretend that much of the life of Herbert Wells was a warped reflection due to Temporal Momentum in the wake of past events in the life of Hafren Wells.

Here in this Reality, I can't remember which movie I saw first, War of the Worlds or The Time Machine. As a budding science nerdling, I despised both those movies.

War of the Worlds
My distaste for alien invasion movies has never waned. In the case of time travel, I eventually read Asimov's time travel novel, The End of Eternity, and thankfully that was able to wash the bad taste of the Eloi and the Morlocks out of my mouth.

No Sale
Here in 2016, our planet Earth must seem a much smaller and less mysterious place than it was for people living in the 1890s. Even as a boy in the early 1970s, knowing the physical basis of genes, mutations and evolution, I found the vision of future human evolution provided to us by Herbert Wells in The Time Machine to be implausible. In many ways, Wells reminds me of Isaac Asimov; his non-fiction (example) reveals him to be scientifically literate, but he was trapped in a pre-modern scientific age and his science fantasies unfortunately leave me cold. Wells is sadly beyond my Sci Fi even horizon.

The Shape of Things to Come
Bitching and Moaning. Why should a man in the 1890s, who had published "seventeen papers upon physical optics" be able to build his Time Machine in a back room of his home, yet nobody else in the future ever replicated his achievement and began traveling through time?

The formula for stories of "scientific romance" was to pretend that there might be some scientific/technical basis for a magic trick, then the author could tell some adventure story that was thus made possible. To this day, people with no training in science probably view technological advances as magic tricks (see Clarke's 3rd law). As a fan of "hard science fiction", if asked to provide a modern accounting of the "scientific romance" stories of H. G. Wells I would suggest that they be categorized as part of the larger domain of "technofantasy".

Global Warming
In his description of the future (as seen by the Time Traveler in The Time Machine), Wells told of the continued expansion of urban civilization in the London area with the construction of large buildings. Then, traveling further into the future, there was an end to winters in southern England. "I saw great and splendid architecture rising about me, more massive than any buildings of our own time, and yet, as it seemed, built of glimmer and mist. I saw a richer green flow up the hill-side, and remain there, without any wintry intermission."

In the imagined future of Wells, why does the Earth get warmer? There is no indication that he had any concept of green house gas-induced warming (see the discussion here). What little science we find in the stories of Wells is pretty thin gruel for a science nerd like me.

A credible human invalid.
Since I find it impossible to take seriously the science elements of stories written by H. G. Wells, I'm going to focus attention on his skill as a fantasy writer. It is through his brand of free-wheeling and fun fantasy that I believe Wells had a profound influence on many science fiction writers such as Isaac Asimov and Jack Vance.

in the Final Reality
"...if she comes to earth at all, she must come among nice people....."

In his story The Sea Lady, Wells told of a strange visitor to the Earth. By "the Earth", Wells was making a distinction between the ocean and the continents, or, more precisely, the coast of England. The only thing strange about this visitor was that she happened to be a mermaid.

In the Ekcolir Reality
Assassination by Subtraction
The timeline of Earth's history was somewhat different in the Ekcolir Reality. Of particular importance for Hafren Wells, the pace of scientific advancement was quicker and there were more opportunities for women in science.

The Dead Widowers previously described for me some of the advanced technologies that were used during the American Civil War in the Ekcolir Reality. By the late 1800s, the ability of methane and carbon dioxide to cause an atmospheric greenhouse effect was already widely recognized by the world's scientific community.

hepatitis B virions
Hafren grew up reading the works of Jade Verne (the analogue of Jules Verne in the Ekcolir Reality). Hafren was terribly discouraged when Jade died in 1892, suffering from the effects of a hepatitis B viral infection. In the early 1900s of the Ekcolir Reality, electron microscopy was used to visualize the hepatitis B virus.

Report from Deep Time
In the Ekcolir Reality. This reconstructed
cover image was made by Zeta using
'Browncoat 38' by Jessica Truscott
Discussions with Zeta and Yōd have helped me understand some of the old information about Deep Time that was collected by Angela and provided to me by way of the infites that I received from Ivory.

According to Zeta, in the year 1902 of the Ekcolir Reality (all dates are transformed to comply with our calendar; our year 1902 was actually in the 23rd century of the Etruscan calendar), Hafren Wells published The C-Laser, which told of the Jade Verne's return from the dead.

As told by Hafren, it was an artificial life replica of Jade Verne (with all of her memories) that came back to Earth. Wells set the story in the year 1917, not long after the discovery of the Hierion Mass Equation. The "C-Laser" was actually a carbon dioxide laser that was used as part of a communications system that allowed the Jade replica to communicate with a group of scientists at the Chantique Becquerel Institute for Nuclear Physics.

In the Ekcolir Reality. This reconstructed
cover image was made by Zeta using
'Browncoat 37' by Jessica Truscott
As told in The C-Laser, the challenge for establishing communications with the Jade replica arose because that replica was composed of hierions. The Jade replica was too small to be seen, but she could communicate with humans by producing tiny engraved messages on metal chips.

According to information left to me by Ivory, since in the Ekcolir Reality the Becquerel Institute for Nuclear Physics had been destroyed in an explosion and fire in 1899, there was a cult following among readers of The C-Laser who believed that the Jade Verne replica was actually from a previous Realty (the one I call the Asimov Reality). Apparently Hafren Wells raised the possibility in The C-Laser that there were alternate Realities and in one of those alternate universes, contact was (or would be) made between humans and nanoscopic life forms in 1917.

In the Asimov Reality. This reconstructed
cover image was made by Zeta using
'Browncoat 27' by Jessica Truscott
Mentioned by name in The C-Laser was a book that Hafren attributed to Jade Verne called Journey to Proxima Centauri. Written in 1864, Journey to Proxima Centauri told of an alien creature that built a teleportation device on Earth. That alien creature seems to have been what I call a 'Grendel'.

As told by Hafren in The C-Laser, after Jade's death in 1892 she (or Jade's replica) was teleported to a distant planet. Only upon returning to Earth in 1917 (in violation of a kind of quarantine) did the Jade replica realize that she was 12 orders of magnitude smaller than the humans of Earth.

In the Asimov Reality
According to Zeta, there was an earlier analogue of The Sea Lady in the Asimov Reality: a book called The Lost Sea. In that story, a population of Neanderthals survived in 'Grenland' until the rapid sea level rise at the end of the last ice age. Yōd believes that there was a special relationship between those Neanderthals and a group of aquatic beings who seem to correspond with what I call the Grendels. The Lost Sea was a time travel story and the main character was apparently a thinly disguised Jade Verne who went back in time 10,000 years to meet the last remaining Neanderthals and Grendels on Earth.

Next: Investigating the origins of telepathic robots
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Sep 24, 2016

Sci Fi Event Horizon

Here in 2016, I have been celebrating several science fiction milestones. Recently I celebrated the 75th anniversary of Isaac Asimov's robot story, 'Reason'. Shown in the image to the right on this page, I am working on a new blog post called 'Scientific Romance' that is a subjective and very personal look back at the first 150 years of the Wells Era.

I've also recently blogged about 1) the fact that we are now at a point in time 200 years after the publication of Frankenstein and 2) 100 years into the Vance Era and 3) we are now also 50 years into the Star Trek Era. With all this gazing into the past, I want to explicitly explore the idea that science fiction stories are ephemeral products of their time and they all come with an expiration date.
Language Barriers
'Runaround' (first published in 1942)
One problem (that is not unique to science fiction) is the transient nature of languages. Each generation of readers falls in love with the literary works that are written in their time. Then, slowly, times change, language itself changes and eventually new generations of readers can no longer understand those wonderful old stories that were written in earlier times.

Science fiction often has additional related problems. Some science fiction stories are set in a future time. Then, when readers of an old story find themselves living in those future times, they can feel disappointment that the imagined future of the old story failed to align with reality.

That's no moon!
Historical Example. Many early science fiction stories failed to "write into the future" the ubiquitous radio communications technology that we now take for granted here in the 21st century. Asimov's robot stories from the 1940s provide a case in point. In 'Runaround', the story takes place in about the year 2015, but in Asimov's imagined future, radio communication techniques have hardly advanced beyond the state of the art in 1940.

Right at the start of 'Runaround', Asimov sets the scene by explicitly commenting on how rapidly robot technology is developing in the early 21st century. However, only 12 hours into their mission on Mercury, robot trouble-shooters Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan are confronted with a problem arising from a glitchy robot, a new model of robot that they brought with them from Earth and who was sent out on the surface of the planet to get a desperately needed bucket full of selenium. This task should have been easy for the robot, a device that was designed to survive the super hot conditions of Mercury where there are pools of pure liquid selenium.

However, after the robot reached the nearest selenium pool (17 miles away), it began endlessly circling the pool. The base of operations on Mercury and this robot (called 'Speedy', serial number SPD-13) rely on antiquated equipment that does not allow for radio communications with robots who have gone more than two miles into the "sunside" of the planet.

For readers here in 2016, Asimov's story quickly gets itself into trouble from a technical perspective. Around 1965, astronomers realized that Mercury does not have a "sunside" that is gravitationally locked so as to always face the sun. Personally, I find this fact about Mercury's orbital dynamics to be an annoying feature of our Solar System, similar in nature to the terrible idea that there is an upper limit to the speed of travel through the universe. For the purposes of science fiction story telling, I prefer an imaginary Solar System in which Mercury does have a "sunside" and I prefer a fictional universe in which it is possible to both travel and send communications signals through the universe at faster-than-light speeds.

The Future!
In 'Runaround', Asimov imagined that the antiquated radio equipment available to Donovan and Powell does function in a low-bandwidth mode that allows them to track the positions of robots like Speedy who are sent out to complete tasks on the sunside. However, verbal communications are not possible with poor Speedy, so Donovan and Powell can only watch helplessly while Speedy marches in an endless loop around the selenium pool. Sadly, they had brought to Mercury new "ultrawave" equipment that would improve communications with robots working on the sunside, but they will need a few weeks to set up that new ultrawave equipment.

For younger readers here in the 21st century, Asimov's story and these technical constraints might be nearly incomprehensible and unbelievable. They are likely to ask: you went all the way to Mercury, but you could not bring along the kilo of selenium that you would need for the photo-cell banks? It will take you weeks to install and start using the new ultrawave equipment? And, of course, Asimov imagined humanoid robots who would speak English. He did not imagine a future like our 2016 with the type of non-speaking, non-humanoid radio-controlled robots that are actually out there exploring the Solar System.

Out of Touch
Not only are Donovan and Powell severely limited in their ability to communicate with Speedy, but they are depicted as being cut off from communicating with Earth. This kind of communications deficiency for spacemen was also part of Asimov's story 'Reason'. While on their mission at a solar power station in space, Donovan and Powell never send or receive radio messages from Earth or spacecraft.

Lucky for me, none of the many "flaws" in Asimov's robot stories ruin them for me. 'Runabout' is a "hard science fiction" romp, a kind of thought experiment for exploring the potential implications of the Laws of Robotics. Asimov's language from the 1940s still feels alive and it is not cluttered with too many dead and dying words.

cover art by Chris Moore?
In Asimov's youth, electronic devices were powered by vacuum tubes. When he wrote 'Reason', he imagined that a solar power station would be built around an L-tube. It does not matter what an L-tube is, but readers who were born in the transistor age might not have the same appreciation for 'Reason' as someone who has actually worked with glowing vacuum tubes. Still, all of science fiction from the late 1920s on is still accessible to me as a reader in 2016. I worry that some aspects of Asimov's old stories are gradually becoming incomprehensible to younger science fiction fans.

cover art by Robert Schulz
Proto-Science Fiction
For me, proto-science fiction (such as the 'Scientific Romance' stories of H. G. Wells) is slipping away beyond the science fiction event horizon. Wells was writing for an audience that could be amazed by scientific advances and new technologies, but that was just an industrial age extension of the same sense of wonder that had for centuries before been stimulated by magic and pre-science-age fantasy.

When H. G. Wells wrote about a time machine, he made absolutely no effort to explain how it worked or how one man, working alone, built it in his back room. There was no science behind the time travel in The Time Machine.

cover art by Stephen Youll
In my view, it is not useful to view old stories such as Frankenstein or The Time Machine as science fiction because they were not written for a scientifically literate audience. I suppose reader interests change through the centuries, but it is almost impossible for me to imagine the reader of 200 years ago; someone who could be content to plow through a 3,500 word account of Victor Frankenstein's uneventful trip across Europe. Of course, I grew up reading Doc Smith's stories about travel to the stars and I'm thankful that styles in story writing have changed: Smith could move readers between galaxies in just a few short paragraphs.

Les Robots
Flowery stories written in the English language of 200 years ago have become almost unreadable for me. In Frankenstein, among the hundreds of exclamation marks and 19 cries of "alas" I suppose we can be thankful that Shelly used moderation and only 13 of these are cries of "Alas!" Stories by H. G. Wells are in a gray zone where it is clear that he was writing for a different kind of audience than what Asimov had in mind. And Asimov was actually trained as a scientist, which is a huge plus for a science nerd like me.

H. G. Wells in an alternate Reality
I'll continue my look back at the stories of H. G. Wells in my next blog post. Fair Warning: I view Wells as more of a political fiction writer than a science fiction writer. I don't think it is sensible to look back at an old story like The Time Machine and say, "Golly, Gee! A time machine! This must be science fiction!" However, I do think that Wells was an important influence on both of my favorite science fiction writers; Asimov and Jack Vance. And I can't resist having fun by imagining what might have been, in some alternate Reality, where Wells actually did write science fiction stories.
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Sep 20, 2016

Slideshow Sideshow

Slideshow gadget running in the sidebar
Exactly one year ago I blogged about the fact that I like to include images in my blog posts. For many years I have used the Blogger Slideshow gadget to display a minimovie of thumbnail images from this blog in the right hand sidebar.

When clicking on those Slideshow images, you were taken to the full sized image in an image album (example).

With Google shutting down the old Picasa Web Albums, I believe that my old Picasa images have been migrated to an "album archive page". (see this Picasa blog post) There are sub-archives for each of my blogs. I've never understood how it turned out that after years of using Picasa, I ended up with several different "eras" of archived images from the wikifiction blog (see the image below).
Three sub-albums for wikifiction blog images archived to Picasa Web Albums (most recent).

A while back, there was word from Google that the Slideshow gadget would not work with https connections.

Today I got this message from Google:
"announced" (click image to enlarge)

So, just 10 8 more days for the Slideshow gadget! (it was removed on the 27th)

Other news. I finally allowed Google to set up a "custom URL" for my Google+ account. I'm still not sure what the advantage is over the old number (which now re-directs to the "custom address).

Next: looking at expiration dates on old stories
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