1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by a human being, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does no conflict with the First or Second Law.
These are “The Three Laws of Robotics” written in a short story “Runaround” by Isaac Asimov in 1942.
Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) is known as one of the most prolific writers of all time having written over 500 books and 90,000 scientific theoretical papers and textbook postscript notations that bear his name. When you go to your public library, you can find Asimov listed in at least 10 categories under the “Dewey Decimal System”.
Even after all that Isaac Asimov is best remembered for his “futurist visions” in the realm of Science Fiction. You do not become a “futurist” unless your vision has had an impact on the Scientific Community in some way.
The futurist writes “future history.” You may well ask, how you can do that. By being a student of, or a scientist, and putting forward your best educated guesses. And Asimov was all that and more. He was a professor of biochemistry atBostonUniversity. His non-fiction articles for “Popular Science” and his work in novels and short stories, “I Robot” and “Bicentennial Man” being the best known in popular sci-fi genre.
Isaac Asimov had long-ranging effects on sci-fi writers as a whole. There is not a writer of sci-fi, be it novelist, short story or screenwriter who has not at sometime read an Asimov story. This lead to movies like “The Bicentennial Man” with Robin Williams, and “I Robot” with Will Smith based on his work. Also, a notable nod went to Asimov by Gene Roddenberry, in “Star Trek” and its sequels. Asimov’s futurist vision can be credited for the android Data and Data’s creator Dr, Sung (a not-so-veiled Asimov) and a cosmos filled with alien life forms, logical, benevolent and malevolent.
“Star Trek” was pitched by Gene Roddenberry to the network as a sci-fi space western very loosely base on “Wagon Train,” in that it would go somewhere different each episode. But it was only after it went into syndication, that it developed a its cult following.
What people do not realize is that Isaac Asimov started writing in1939 about the pseudo scientific sounding “positronic brain.” This is the type of brain that the android Data had, and has been a notation piece in a number of other sci-fi works. “Doctor Who,” “Blade Runner,” “Star Wars” and “AI.”
This idea of a positronic brain was first fully fleshed out as a positronic robot brain in the 1993 “The Positronic Man,” a novel co-written by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg, but before that in “The Caves of Steel,” published in 1954, where Asimov first coined the term “positronic brain.”
A personal note: “The Caves of Steel” was one of the first sci-fi books that I ever read, and I might point out that every time I get onto a moving sidewalk, the people mover, in the airport, I remember the concept of the “moving walkways” that was put forth by Asimov in the 1954 novel.
Asimov referred to his positronic men, or “my robots” as a hope for the future of man, a benevolent manufactured artificial life form for the benefit, and to service humanity. This all goes back to Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein”, but with a programmable benevolent twist, and mechanical parts instead of body parts from the departed.
Also, Asimov put forward the idea of robots building robots… just a wild idea? All you need do is look on the manufacturing floor of a company like GM and you will find robots making cars. Now what is a car? Answer; a simple wheeled robot that we all drive around town, and we are going to see the automobile turn the corner and become a true robot one day, driving us around town someday soon, making driving hopefully less of a contact sport. Now that is impact on science.
Do I think that we will see the positronic man? Perhaps not in my lifetime, not as a walking talking man-like entity serving us our dinner, but now refrigerators are talking back to you along with your car and cell-phone; maybe, sooner than I might think. The day a talking refrigerator goes out the door shopping on its own, and then I will know, the robots are here.
Asimov the futurist visionary writer pointed the way and everybody from computer nerds and electronic and mechanical engineers are climbing over one another to fulfill his futurist visions. Benevolent or malevolent; what will the robot be? There is a simple answer; whatever we program it to be.
The benevolent side is already here in the form of simple tractor type robots that the military and police are using to disarm IEDs and look for threats on today’s battlefields and urban environments. They are driven by their operators like video games and save lives, but some have proposed arming these little titans and fighting a war with their human operators as far as a half a world away.
All out, robot war is not a new concept, look at the classic 1950 movie “The Day the Earth Stood Still” in this movie the earth is given a choice, stop aggression or have the earth reduced to a burned out cinder by a race of all powerful indestructible robot policemen; seem farfetched? Well, let us hope that whatever lands here from Out There has not seen that movie.
Where did such ideas come from? From the futurist visionaries like Asimov. You will hardly find a one of them that has not read Asimov at one time in their lives. You might be asking, well if Asimov inspired others, who inspired him?
Tick-tock, tick-tock; times up. Neil R. Jones (1909-1988) wrote short stories for “Amazing Stories” the periodical in the 1930s, his most popular, but regrettably, largely forgotten “Jameson Satellite” told the story of Professor Jameson “The Last Earthman” who becomes immortal through the science of “The Zoromes” a race of “machine men”, robot- humanlike aliens or, “cyborgs”.
Asimov read him at 11, about the same age I first read Asimov’s “Caves of Steel,” and improved and built on the idea of the “brain-in-the-box” cyborg of Jones’ Professor Jameson who lasted 40 million years, or about 24 installments. The idea of a race of cyborgs going about the cosmos assimilating other being did not go unnoticed. Unlike the “Borg” of “Star Trek the Next Generation”, the cyborg of Jones’ story did this to prolong the lives of those beings that they encountered, rather than enslave the universe.
The use of freezers to sustain live until the transformation into a cyborg, or in long term space voyages was a first in the 30s and was accredited to Neil Jones as the inventor of the idea of cryogenics with his vision of “crayonist” who traveled the far reaches of space in a frozen state, and idea that we have seen in the “sub-light speed” sci-fi stories like “2001 a Space Odyssey” and “Alien,””Aliens,” and “Alien Resurrection”.
There were “synthetic robots” in these films too, the first a malfunctioning secret agent, in the second a hero-type, and the third a sympathetic rebel robot played by Winona Ryder. Mechanical being, bio synthetic being, T-1000 to T-2000, Hal, also let not forget “Blade Runner” and the replicants, and let us not forget a most helpful “Robbie the Robot” from “Forbidden Planet” (1956) and he reappeared in TVs “Lost in Space” CBS (1965-1968) with Guy Williams, who played Zorro for Disney, and June Lockhart, who got her start in MGM movies in the mid-1930s, and stared in the Lassie TV series (1959-1964), being frequently up-staged by the wise-cracking robot on wheels, who often foiled Dr Smith’s plans and screams, with that campy line; “Danger!… Danger!… Will Robinson.”
Robots, robotic humans, and everything imaginable in between now is an actual foreseeable happening, and why would you think that would be?
My point to all this is the same point that I have been putting forward all along.
A well-written story idea takes on a life of its own and can propel the author into fame or infamy, or the oblivion of writers unknown. The idea is in writing, great, good or not so good, it is in ink on paper, or somewhere floating in cyber-space, but it is out there. Asimov is called “The Father of Robotics” and the author of “The Robot Laws”, but if you look at them closely, are they not the law that we try to live by as well, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. When and where was that written, give that a thought or two.
You might well ask, “What impact does this all have on me right now?” Well, let us look around your house. Just how many things seem to be smarter than their user? OK I will not go there, but if you know someone that has lost a limb and they have a prostatic that mimics the one they lost, you have seen biomechanics at work. In the 50s “biomechanics” was a sci-fi term, and biomechanics are largely based on the idea of “What if?” and “Why not?” right out of Isaac Asimov’s “I Robot” and his idea of replacement limbs actually surgically implanted in the human body. Let us not forget in–body insulin pumps, pacemakers, defibrillators, and hearing aid implants that are directly connected into the living brain, there is examples of science fiction becoming science fact.
Isaac Asimov wrote to spark the imagination, and so many in the scientific community have read Asimov’s works both science fiction stories, and non-fiction papers on biochemistry and his ideas on physics, biomechanics, and the cosmos in general. Asimov has earned his place as a futurist and the Father of Robotics and rightfully joins the ranks of futurists like Jules Vern, who envisioned the submarine and atomic power; Arthur C. Clarke who envisioned satellite communications (His idea to place a satellite in orbit 22,236 miles out to keep its position always above the same point on the earth is called a Geostationary Earth Orbit and is why that band is called “The Clark Belt”) and the computer age with the introduction of “The Hal 9000,” and space stations; Carl Sagan and the possibilities of deep space travel with ideas about wormholes and bending or warping space and time.
“Warp speed, engage, Mr. Data…” where have I heard that before. But the most interesting visions of the future are the ones having to do with human-like robots.