Robots and aliens are the most popular clichés of science fiction. In fact they are slowly moving out of the realm of science fiction and becoming part of main stream action genre as well. It is highly possible, we may actually see robots in our life time. Robot is however too broad a term and can mean mechanisms that do not look even remotely human. These already exist. The right technical term for what popularly comes to our mind when we say robot is android – a machine that has lot of human mental and physical characteristics. It is androids that really fascinate us. Whereas an android in itself is not a novelty, what can indeed be fascinating are the social ramifications of their existence. And nobody has dealt with this topic in as much detail as Isaac Asimov, the grand master of science fiction.
The primary phenomenon that Asimov foresees is fear. He even has a term for it: Frankenstein complex, based on the famous novel by Mary Shelley. Though conceptually robots might be fascinating, a machine taking complex decisions that might affect our lives may actually be scary. That too a machine that is physically stronger and computing power way beyond our puny brains would indeed seem like a monster. This is where the ‘Robotics Corporation’ brings in the 3 laws of robotics to allay the fear of humans.
Law 1: A robot may not hurt humans or by inaction allow a human to come to harm
Law 2: A robot must obey humans as long as it does not contradict with Law 1
Law 3: A robot must protect its own existence as long as it does not contradict with Laws 1 and 2
Once we have these laws, they throw up fascinating possibilities. Isaac Asimov goes on to create a whole bouquet of short stories around different contradictions and paradoxes that robots would encounter in adhering to these laws. We also see situations where laws have to be modified for practical situations and the impact and the same. The stories read like whodunit mysteries with Robopsychologist ‘Susan Calvin’ playing the detective.
Another aspect is the relationship between humans and robots, ranging from friendship and enmity to romantic and erotic. It is interesting how Asimov has explored all these themes within the framework of the three laws of robotics. In some cases humans mistakenly attribute human like motives to robots behaviors subscribing to the three laws. On the other hand in one of the longer stories ‘bicentennial man’, a robot wants to be human but humans refuse to grant the robot the rights due to humans. The story has philosophical ramifications as it raises interesting existential questions on the definitions of life and intelligence.
It will indeed be interesting if humanoid robots become a reality in our life time and most of these issues become reality. Isaac Asimov will then join the ranks of Jules Verne and HG Wells as a visionary who predicted the future of human technology.
Related Post: Psychohistory