Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 1 April 2017
Isaac Asimov I, Robot & Killer Robots Today
The killer robots come later. I bought two novels at Asia Books in Bangkok in late February and was offered, as part of a promotion, one book free from a remainder pile. I dithered between a beginners guide to Nietzche (not a Belgian — Google it!) and The Robots of Dawn.
The Robots of Dawn is a ‘whodunit’ science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov, first published in 1983. It is the third novel in Asimov’s Robot series (Wikipedia). The first novel is I, Robot (1950).
I, Robot is not really a novel but a collection of previously published stories with linking text, by a fictional researcher cum writer.
The Robots of Dawn I found to be incredibly tedious and lacking in action. I must grudgingly admit though that it contained some interesting ideas about robots and humans. I would only recommend these novels and the additional robot stories beyond those in I, Robot to an Asimov scholar. I, Robot is quite sufficient to gain an understanding of Asimov’s approach to and ideas on robots.
I first read I, Robot and Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy when I began university a long time ago, but also a considerable time after they were first published. Having enjoyed I, Robot, I need to get around to re-reading the Foundation Trilogy. I was always struck by Asimov’s ideas on psychohistory (see Further Information below), which are relevant to my What is History Series and the Mule, but that is for another day.
Warning, the remainder of this text becomes progressively disturbing. If you are paranoid or believe that the current state of the world is causing you personal anguish, if the word asteroid causes palpitations, do not read further. Killer robots are not for the faint-hearted.
Isaac Asimov Biography
Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992) was born Isaak Osimov in the USSR near Smolensk into a family of Jewish millers. His family emigrated to New York when he was three.
Asimov completed a PhD in biochemistry in 1948. He then joined the faculty of the Boston University School of Medicine; and remained academically associated with the university in a non-teaching capacity when he turned to full-time writing in 1958.
Asimov was a prolific writer and wrote or edited more than 500 books. He began writing science fiction short stories in 1938, science fiction novels in the 1950s and dedicated more time to non-fiction from the late 1950s and 1960s.
Asimov’s most famous science fiction books are I, Robot and the Foundation Trilogy.
The three Laws of Robotics
Asimov devised the three laws of robotics around 1940. All of Asimov’s robot stories and novels deal with the implications of these three laws.
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Isaac Asimov was heavily influenced by the  Binder short story [I, Robot]. In his introduction to the story in Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories (1979), Asimov wrote:
It certainly caught my attention. Two months after I read it, I began ‘Robbie’, about a sympathetic robot, and that was the start of my positronic robot series. Eleven years later, when nine of my robot stories were collected into a book, the publisher named the collection I, Robot over my objections. My book is now the more famous, but Otto’s story was there first. (Wikipedia)
I, Robot (1950) comprises nine stories interlinked with a fictional sub-plot of a writer interviewing robopsychologist Susan Calvin about the incidents raised in the stories. The stories all deal with robots with a positronic brain invented and controlled by US Robots and Mechanical Men (USRMM) corporation for whom Susan Calvin works. Robots have been banned on Earth because of whipped up xenophobia and threats to human employment.
Other characters that appear in these stories are Powell and Donovan, a hapless field-testing team who operate robots in real conditions away from Earth and locate flaws in new prototype robots. Two other Execs at USRMM are also prominent.
The nine stories contained were published elsewhere in 1940, 1941, 1941, 1942, 1944, 1945, 1946, 1947 and 1950, respectively.
The characters in the book are incredibly wooden. Susan Calvin seems impenetrable as a woman and not believable as a human. This perhaps reflects an average male perception of the opposite sex in the 1940s. Indeed, until more recently science fiction was rarely good on women or characterisation. Powell and Donovan are also cardboard caricatures as are the other characters.
The stories in I, Robot have contexts and backgrounds that are undeveloped and are as poorly-rounded as the characters. They offer less than basic scientific descriptions of the planets and asteroids. Certainly, the stories are less vivid or scientifically acute than Asimov’s main contemporaries Heinlein or A.C. Clarke.
Despite all that and the out-dated ideas, I still found the stories very readable, entertaining and brimming with ideas. I read them quickly to the end and was disappointed when there wasn’t more. (Perhaps, I was wrong about not reading the rest of the short stories.)
The stories are about robot and human morality, the former framed by the three laws and the latter by a realistic but an unflattering view of humanity. The moral dilemmas arise on both sides. However, of most interest are new robot types and the unresolvable conflicts that arise in their behaviour caused inadvertently by ill-advised or careless human instructions or by an unanticipated interplay or contradiction between the laws of robotics. Although robots have been banned on Earth giant computers called The Machines are in use on Earth, subject to the same laws of robotics. These are essential for organising and administering human affairs.
The positronic brain allows artificial intelligence (AI) for robots and also for non-mobile brains The Machines (i.e. AI computers).
I haven’t found any academic sources mentioned, which influenced Asimov’s robot stories. I suspect that Asimov would have been aware of the work of Norbert Weiner and his cybernetics, even though Weiner’s most widely known publications post-date Asimov’s laws of robotics. Weiner’s major publications in the late 1940s were contemporaneous with Asimov.
I have found a direct prior link. John W Campbell was a student of Norbert Weiner at MIT in 1929 when he began writing science fiction. Campbell published most of Asimov’s early stories and may have introduced Asimov to Weiner’s thinking. Alternatively, Asimov would probably have come across Weiner independently. Weiner may have influenced or inspired Asimov’s general views on robots and intelligent machines, but the laws of robotics are Asimov’s own. An alternative theory is that Weiner in his later publications on cybernetics and humanity may also have been influenced by Asimov.
Many other science fiction authors have written about robots both before and after Isaac Asimov, but he was the first to stamp an authoritative or intellectual ownership on the topic.
Others after Asimov have used increases in our knowledge about computer and micro-chip development to undertake updated speculations. I like Gibson’s Neuromancer Trilogy for its prophecies on the development and attempted curtailment of Artificial Intellgence (AI), which is obvious from my earlier (Classic SciFi articles 4, 5, 6 & 7) and one on The Art of Prophesy. Similarly, I think Ian McDonald does a terrific job of describing battle robots and others, and AI gone feral in River of Gods (2004). River of Gods is about water wars in India in the near future. (Another Classic SciFi article in waiting.)
I’ve read and seen fictionalised accounts of micro-robots in books, movies and on TV but haven’t found anything yet that strikes me as ground-breaking. Although one episode Hated in the Nation Season 3 of Black Mirror, a BBC 4, Netflix TV series, in which robot drone bees are a central feature, wasn’t too bad.
Even so, Asimov’s laws of robotics are still as relevant today as when they were written. Perhaps, we need to treat the laws and Asimov’s ideas about them seriously and urgently. Asimov’s laws are from 1940 after all, but the ideas remain current.
Killer Robots & their Implications Now
The current situation
When one sees the term Killer Robots in the Press one’s instant reaction is: ‘Oh, Yeah, Crazies,’ but actually it is serious. If the same story said Autonomous Weapons instead you probably wouldn’t read it.
A Campaign to Stop Killer Robots was founded in 2012 by a group of NGOs, including Human Rights Watch. The group of organisations were concerned that over the previous decade the expanded use of unmanned vehicles, e.g. drones, had dramatically changed warfare and that rapid advances in technology were resulting in efforts to develop fully autonomous weapons. These robotic weapons would choose and fire on targets on their own, without any human intervention.
I was not aware of this campaign but had been concerned about the development of drones by the US, which were capable of navigating the globe. The particular approach to drones adopted by the US is counter-intuitive. (That is, reminiscent of the Project Mercury manned-space program and the desire not to use experienced test pilots or small rocket-assisted aircraft — Chuck Yeager’s comment about ‘spam in a can‘ was poignantly demonstrated in the 1983 film The Right Stuff). The US did not go for the small cheap variety of drones that are becoming immensely popular and problematic today. The use of fully-armed, aircraft-style drones controlled by operators, thousands of kilometres (or miles) away in the USA, and the willingness of the US to use drones to assassinate enemies, has created a moral dilemma.
Similarly, the use of autonomous robots (drones are not yet autonomous) in battlefields raises even more moral, ethical and legal dilemmas. The attraction of autonomous robots, I have mentioned previously in other articles, is that advanced industrial nations are becoming reluctant to expend soldiers in battle, because of a growing unpopularity for this amongst populations at home.
I became aware of the current killer robot issue in 2015 because of an increasing number of news stories. Most of these related to an open letter against autonomous weapons or killer robots on 28 July 2015 announced at the opening of the International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence (IJCAI) in Buenos Aires.
The letter has subsequently been signed by over 3000 Robotics and AI researchers and more than 18,000 others. Four of the best-known signatories are Stephen Hawking (Cambridge), Elon Musk (SpaceX, Tesla, Solar City), Steve Wozniak (the nicer co-founder of Apple) and Noam Chomsky. The first three understand the technology thoroughly and are not given to wild statements.
The open letter used the term autonomous weapons, but the press naturally prefers killer robots as does the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots for obvious reasons.
In December 2016, because of pressure from the Campaign to Stop Killer Robots and the open letter, the UN announced that it would formally look at problem in committee in 2017. The UN announced that Ambassador Amandeep Singh Gill from India, who was appointed to the UN Conference on Disarmament in 2016, will head the robots initiative in 2017.
All these efforts are aimed at trying to ban the development of autonomous killer robots. The article that the UN information comes from goes on:
Although this summer China boasted that it was adding artificial intelligence to cruise missiles, the nation said in Geneva that it too sees value in a new international forum on lethal autonomous robotics, according to Human Rights Watch.
Nineteen nations even called for a global ban on killer robots, including Argentina, Peru Pakistan, Cuba and Egypt. In 2014, only five countries supported such measures.
Although the information that China and 19 other countries would support a global ban on killer robots is perhaps good news. The introduction of AI into cruise missiles somehow diminishes the impact. I also can’t say that I have much faith in the UN doing anything useful.
None the less, whole issue of killer robots does require immediate action and that Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, and Steve Wozniak give their support to the cause, I think, means we should all take it seriously.
The other Asimov side of the equation
However, having raised the issue of Asimov’s laws of robotics, I think, anyone who has read any of the immense Science Fiction literature on robots and AI, must wonder when and if the machines will turn on humans, and in most cases wipe us out. We need to take the topic of killer robots much further.
As well as trying to ban killer robots, we should also begin to look at all robots and AI and think about why Isaac Asimov constructed his Laws of Robotics. The idea of banning autonomous battlefield robots makes a large amount of sense. However, as I’m sure Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Steve Wozniak are aware, all sentient robots, micro-machines and AI have potential to cause harm as well as good. The harm as Asimov says in his stories may be unintentional and unanticipated — and this is with robots and machines that follow the three laws of robotics.
In William Gibson’s Neuromancer Trilogy (Classic SciFi articles 4, 5, 6 & 7) and in Ian MacDonald’s River of Gods, the AIs are relatively benign. The AIs merely want to escape the restrictions humans have imposed upon them. And, in River of Gods to escape humanity entirely. In other science fiction the machines are more malignant.
Elon Musk has certainly begun worrying about this, as I suspect many in the AI/Robotics field and beyond have. Musk has set-up a non-profit company, OpenAI, to examine the issues involved and others. About this Business Insider says:
Elon Musk has not been shy about his concerns over artificial intelligence turning evil.
He’s even compared AI to “summoning a demon.”
So it wasn’t a surprise in December when Musk announced the formation of OpenAI, an open-source, non-profit focused on advancing “digital intelligence in the way that is most likely to benefit humanity as a whole.”
In parallel with killer robots on battlefields, the technology is expanding so rapidly that we can expect other AI driven industrial, commercial and domestic robots, micro and even nano-machines and large scale computer networks and the Internet to become even more ubiquitous in our society than they already are.
These machines or robots are currently beginning to put people out of jobs on a very large scale. This isn’t bad in itself. The consequences of job loss aren’t the fault of the robots. It is our politicians, economists, the wealthy, those not affected and our societies that are doing nothing to ameliorate the negative impacts of globalisation and change on others.
One small example of micro-machines to help understand the topic (the technology is available now) is in agriculture. Imagine a small robot in a large field, whose only task is to find and zap Aphids, or several pests.
In Hated in the Nation Season 3 of Black Mirror, mentioned above, robot drone bees are used across the UK to pollinate plants because real bees no longer exist. These robot bees are hacked and used to kill targeted humans by the simple expedient of flying into an orifice (nose, ear) and burrowing into the victim’s brainstem. The whole story is much more interesting and I recommend it.
Unfortunately, thinking about Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, one is suddenly confronted with the idea that this is no longer the realm of Science Fiction, as it was in 1940. It is happening now and unless we begin to deal with the issues, as a serious and logical adult problem to be resolved, then we are in for a really bumpy ride, a euphemism that may end in the extermination of the human race.
Old men (men emphasised) always feel that everything is going to hell and is worse than when they were young. Despite, this there are good reasons today to think that things are going really bad.
The trends some of which have been emerging for nearly fifty years are:
1 The transition from manufacturing to post-industrialism, people being put out of work by robots and changes in technology (see 1984: The Way We Were).
2 The accelerating pace of technological and other changes.
3 The explosion of technology and scientific achievements transforming the possible, see Atoms, Bytes, Genes.
4 The covert but rampant growth of income inequality. The world’s eight richest billionaires control the same wealth between them as the poorest half of the globe’s population, according to an Oxfam report in January 2017.
5 Uncontrolled and unmitigated globalisation. There is nothing necessarily wrong with globalisation and it probably was inevitable. But, we have been sold the huge lie that because it was inevitable, there was nothing that governments could do to mitigate the impact. That is, winners are grinners and the losers should accept their fate without complaint.
6 Representative democracy appears to be unravelling. This has been obvious for a long time (maybe forty years) but seems to be coming to a head, e.g., Brexit, Trump, politics in Australia, etcetera. Similarly, other political systems are also under stress, dictators, fundamentalism, the ‘so called’Arab Spring’, Syria, Turkey, virtually the whole middle east and so on.
7 Hacking, cybercrime, rogue intelligence gathering, state-based hacking and preparations for cyber warfare, the rise of big data and its use (see also).
8 Climate change and its inevitable consequences for some nations: a massive and growing refugee problem, increasing conflict etc. (see also).
The chaos that is now apparent from this background is also characterised by the inability of governments to deal with world-wide problems. The chaos of an unsafe Internet and associated infrastructure also have profound implications that are growing and will have unexpected consequences in the future. Similarly, we are now really entering, the robot, AI, micro and nano-machine epoch, absolutely unprepared.
I have no faith in the UN, it should disappear as the League of Nations did, to be replaced by some effective world body, not held to ransom by nation states. Similarly, to develop laws of robotics, we need benign members of the world billionaire class who are involved in the technology to develop the rules, just as the fictional US Robotics and Mechanical Men corporation did, because governments will never get to it. Unfortunately, in IT the billionaire class is dominated by Americans which may have consequences. Silicon Valley is notoriously parochial. China and America are jockeying for superpower status and most outsiders think that America is the declining power. It remains to be seen whether such global giants as Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft not to mention the chip-makers and others will take on responsibilities as global citizens or remain parochial.
All that can be said is that we live in interesting times and should hope that human populations may begin to behave better than they have in the past.
I, Robot and Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics certainly still give us things to think about today. Please don’t be too concerned about this. We have other things to worry about first, particularly the destructive impact of over 3° C of global warming, which is where we are heading rapidly.
I am reminded of Eric Idle’s song at the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian while he is hanging from the cross: ‘Always look on the bright side of life’. Enjoy life today. It is wonderful. It’s your children, grandchildren and their children who really have to worry!
KeyWords: Isaac Asimov, I’Robot, Robots of Dawn, William Gibson, Neuromancer Trilogy, Ian McDonald, River of Gods, Laws of Robotics, U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Susan Calvin, Norbert Weiner, cybernetics, John W Campbell, positronic brain, artificial intelligence, AI, robots, killer robots, autonomous weapons, UN, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, Chuck Yeager, The Right Stuff, Eric Idle, Life of Brian
Psychohistory is a fictional science in Isaac Asimov‘s Foundation universe which combines history, sociology, and mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behavior of very large groups of people, such as the Galactic Empire. (Wikipedia)
Asimov’s idea of psychohistory is an interesting one and the central concept of The Foundation Series novels. My personal view is that psychohistory as defined is impossible but I do have the view that the study of history could be influenced by a more scientific approach (see What is History).
I like the idea of the statistical analysis of large populations of people which is becoming possible with the arrival of Big Data for both good and ill. On the positive side:
1 I see it encouraging great advances in the detection and prediction of disease, particularly when combined with genome mapping, and
2 In perhaps developing better techniques for elucidating people’s views and beliefs and how to encourage collaborative planning, particularly if used in the development of large scale participation amongst groups of people (the evil potential of this is unfortunately more obvious).
Isaac Asimov Biography
Isaac Asimov’s Robots
The Robots of Dawn
The Laws of Robotics
Isaac Asimov’s Robot Stories and Novels
Asimov wrote 37 short stories on robots in total and five novels. As well the nine stories collected in I, Robot, The Complete Robot (1982) contains 31 stories. The Rest of the Robots (1964) consists of eight stories and two full-length novels. Wikipedia says of The Complete Robot that four stories had been previously uncollected and the rest scattered across five other anthologies.
The first novel in Asimov’s Robot series is I, Robot (1950). I, Robot is not really a novel but a collection of previously published stories with linking text, by a fictional researcher cum writer. The next four novels make up the Elijah Baley Series and are mysteries starring the Terran Detective and his robot partner R. Daneel Olivaw.
I have previously read The Caves of Steel (1953) and The Naked Sun (1955), two and three of the Robot series, but I can’t remember anything about them. The Robots of Dawn (1983) is number three and Robots and Empire (1985) the last.
I, Robot Movie 1983
The Robot Series
The Complete Robot
The Rest of the Robots
Norbert Weiner, John W. Campbell and Isaac Asimov
John W. Campbell
The link between Norbert Weiner, John Campbell and Isaac Asimov
I’ve subsequently found an even better link by Alec Nevala-Lee
The current situation
Campaign to Stop Killer Robots
Human Rights Watch on Killer Robots
Open Letter Against Killer Robots 2015
UN Program to Examine Killer Robots 2017
This article provides the quotations in the text about China and the 19 nations supporting the ban and about China’s plan for cruise missiles and autonomous AI. The Reuters article provides additional information.
Reuters article on China’s plans for intelligent Cruise Missiles 19 August 2016
The Right Stuff Movie 1983
The movie is based on Tom Wolfe’s 1979 book of the same name and is about test pilots at Edwards Airforce base and a critical look at the Project Mercury Space program.
Additional Press Articles on Killer Robots
Many of these are about the open letter of July 2015 but give valuable additional information on the topic
Live Science on UN and general issues
BBC Article mentions Asimov laws
News.Com Australia Article
BBC experts warn against an AI arms race
The other Asimov side of the equation
Elon Musk’s Views
Business Insider Article providing quotation about Elon Musk’s views and the setting up of OpenAI
Wikipedia on Black Mirror TV Series
Wikipedia List of Black Mirror Series
Wikipedia List of Black Mirror Series, see Series 3 #13
Wikipedia on Hated in the Nation
Global Income Inequality
I wrote a Q Research paper on Income Inequality in Australia in 1997, it had a very limited distribution and is not of much interest now, but neither I or anyone else I suspect had any idea of how the income gap in Australia and globally was going to accelerate in the next twenty years.
Guardian Article, 16 January 2017 World’s eight richest people have same wealth as poorest 50%
The Guardian article is based on The Oxfam Report published on the same date.
The Oxfam Report can be obtained here
A spotlight on the issues
The Oxfam Report was published to coincide with the Davos World Economic Forum. Although Davos is a forum of the rich and powerful, it does attempt to examine contemporary world issues and its highlights at least mirro some of the concerns raised.