Robots of Dawn


Toyota Partner Robot - front (AMLUX, 2007)

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

21 comments:

Rickie said...

Funnily, I kept thinking of Chitti, Rajnikant's last film avatar as a robot, while I was reading this post!
Btw, how would you describe Siri, the human voice inside the IPhone 5??

The Fool said...

That is the most popular in India seems like Rickie. I was actually planning to describe the various robots I have encountered in books and movies. But then there were too many of them and I decided to drop it.

I don't know what is Siri. Never used a I-phone.

subhorup dasgupta said...

Humanoid robots no longer seem a distant dream. And regardless, Asimov is still up there with Jules Verne and Wells. Happened to re-read some of Verne and loved it. The rate at which processor speeds are growing, it will soon be possible to have robots with hundreds if not thousands of different processors working together to make it human-like.

The Fool said...

Well, I felt whereas Verne and Wells were able to predict things within near future, Asimov's predictions were way beyond into the future. Otherwise definitely he is up there. I am really hoping to see robots and space travel within our life time.

Rickie said...

Siri is the voice activated command centre in the new iPhone. Not only does she dial your wife's no. for you while you are driving, she will also tell you directions to the closest Pizzahut and the weather in Patiala if you are curious to know. It even jokes around with you. Try asking her if she is a virgin. :D

debajyoti said...

understanding the difference between a humanoid and a human would be quite interesting! guess, i need to buy your science fiction book.

The Fool said...

Interesting, Rickie - Need to see if there is an android equivalent. Have to check if there is an android equivalent. Or maybe not. My phone battery is so crappy it will drain in 1 hour if I install some cool app.

The Fool said...

Yes deb and also depressing if we were to discover if we have no soul and higher purpose but just another machine.

jaish_vats said...

Imagine some confusions that it could create, you need to confirm if its a humanoid or human before calling it for a date :D ha ha

The Fool said...

Ha Ha Jaish. Point is some people may even want to date robots.

Pankti Mehta said...

My iPhone has Siri but it doesn't understand Indian accent. Rickie, do you have American accent or does ur Siri understands your Indian accent?

Pankti Mehta said...

Robot movies have always fascinated me...I think the concept of making a machine do all your work is simply irresistible for me. :D

Rachna said...

hehe Rickie, on Gurdev's iPhone, he has to say find my wife Rakna that is what they used to call me in US and then Siri finds me. Now she can call me too :). It is fun conversing with Siri, of course with accent change. And Chitti was a favorite robot of mine.

Rachna said...

Though sci-fi does not interest me, I like simplified sci-fi fiction or movies. I think robots can be a really convenient option for things like say cleaning or help with manual chores. Emotions in robots is a very sticky area.

Diwakar Narayan said...

I see too much difficulties in incorporating robots in our everyday life. But yes, those three laws sounded good, as you say.

The Fool said...

Yeah - Dumb robots that just do manual works are better. It is more intelligent ones that are going to pose problems. But even dumb robots are going to be resisted by politicians for causing unemployment.

The Fool said...

Rachna - Science fiction introduces lot of interesting concepts. I plan to introduce them one by one through my posts.

The Fool said...

True, Diwa.

Ari said...

Robots are already taking over human jobs in laboratories and factories. They are starting to make them with certain human characteristics. We could see humanoid robots in our lifetime at this rate of progression.

The Fool said...

It would be interesting times when that happens.

Suresh Chandrasekaran said...

Some may prefer to date only robots :) More predictable see :)

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