Friday, July 8, 2011

Adventure classics -- The mind of a machine

I, Robot

By Isaac Asimov


Isaac Asimov didn’t invent the concept of robots. He just made the brilliant leap of postulating a technological change to house the calculating power of computers within small mobile bodies. No, not the silicon chip. He didn’t, after all, die a multibillionaire. But a change as mind-boggling for those of us born BPC (before personal computers), who had to punch holes in rectangles of stiff paper to input our programs. Let Asimov describe it himself in the introduction to I, Robot: “All that had been done in the mid-twentieth century on ‘calculating machines’ had been upset by . . . positronic brain-paths. The miles of relays and photocells had given way to the spongy globe of platinumirdium about the size of a human brain.”

And from there, Asimov threaded a series of short stories published, for the most part during the 1940’s, into a unified tale of the development of humanoid robots beginning with the speechless original model Robbie, “made and sold in 1996,” he predicted hopefully in the 1950 edition of the story cycle cum novel.

The title character of “Robbie,” first published as “Strange Playmate” in 1940, was to be a nonspecialized robot sold as a “nursemaid” – effectively a nanny for a small child whose life he would protect at the risk of his own thanks to the conditioning of Asimov’s “First Law of Robotics.” At the time, Asimov gave a throwaway definition of this law as making it “impossible for a robot to harm a human being.” But the Robbie of the story went much further in its application of the First Law, and Asimov later codified it as “No robot may harm a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”
And although Asimov is considered one of the masters of hard science fiction, because he was also a teller of tales, he added second and third laws, leading robots into the psychological conflicts necessary for any satisfying story. You almost have to wonder if Asimov himself possessed the human equivalent of a positronic brain, working, as he did, as a biochemistry professor at Boston University for most of his life while managing to write or edit more than five hundred books, including volumes impishly titled Opus 100, Opus 200 and Opus 300. When asked what he would do if he were told he had only minutes left to live, he replied, “Type faster.”

Will that positronic brain of Asimov’s imagination ever truly exist? Even in 2011, when a computer can win the TV game show “Jeopardy” and robots are designed as caregivers, the reality still seems far away. But maybe some genius of the future will discover it. At least so the writers of the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation” hoped. They endowed the series’ resident sentient robot Data with such a brain. Credited, of course, to Asimov.

(Next week: From a writer of books to a burner of books, in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.)

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