September 27, 2006

TVG Print: The Devil Comes 'a Calling

I have been a huge fan of Isaac Asimov’s work since I was a teenager. For those who don’t know who I’m talking about, Asimov was a biochemist and a prolific author who started his career writing for his school newspaper (the man wrote professionally on just about everything starting in the 1940’s, from the Bible and politics to science and science fiction, over 400 books in his lifetime). He is considered one of the great popularizers of science and one of the most legendary science fiction writers.

Asimov is almost single-handedly responsible for all of the science fiction that we read in books and watch in the movie theaters, especially the works of fiction dealing with robots. I, Robot was the first of these books, exploring a world where man constructed robots that abided by three basic rules of functioning, the Three Laws of Robotics:

-A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

-A robot must obey the 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.

Asimov fleshed out this future world and crafted stories that dealt with the ins and outs of these laws, which sometimes meant the logical circumvention of them.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what exactly this has to do with the myth of the mad scientist.

Two years ago, Twentieth Century Fox released a film “based loosely” on Asimov’s I, Robot. If by based loosely they meant only the name of the film and the book is identical, I suppose that fits.

The novel I, Robot had a purpose; one much deeper than might be comprehended at first glance. It was written after Asimov—a sci-fi reader as much as writer—had grown tired of the mad Dr. Frankenstein stories that had become fashionable after the scientific horrors of World War I. Human plays God, God punishes human. Human creations turn on creator, usually in the form of robots this time around. Asimov believed in a world where man had the power to control technology utterly, without any divine power struggle or demon contracts (modernism). I, Robot the novel was the creative construction of this world.

Never, never was one of my robots to turn stupidly on his creator,” says Asimov in a foreword to Eight Stories from the Rest of the Robots. “My robots were machines designed by engineers, not pseudo-men created by blasphemers.”

I, Robot the movie was the direct antithesis of the modernist world. What happened in the film? Human creates machine. Machine turns on human, trying to control him/her. The movie was basically another rehash of the Frankenstein story.

Our pop culture in America is rife with these stories. In The Matrix, the creations of humans betray their creators, causing a great rift that destroyed the world and plunged humans into a post-modernist nightmare. The Terminator, sent by his human-hating robo-superiors, travels through time to destroy a temporal cog in the human lineage during another such war between creator and creation. In Star Wars, Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s machine-more-than-man (twisted and evil) shadow self. Skywalker must resist the Dark Side that Vader has embraced so easily through his lack of physical being, his disconnect with life.

These stories are dubbed “Faustian,” which refers to a very old story of a man playing God (Faust) and selling his soul to the devil (Mephistopheles) for power. They are archetypal, stories tied deep to our psyche and our inherent fear of the power of science, and therefore the power of knowledge.

They are also unfounded and philosophically unsound.

As a society we are frightened of science and the scientist because of what he/she might uncover. It is okay when science finds new ways to produce an abundance of food or more efficient fuels or time saving appliances. Knowledge is simultaneously our friend and bitter enemy, perfectly illustrated by the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden.

Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden not because they disobeyed God, but because they could not exist in a place that they knew did not exist. The knowledge from the apple showed them the world as it was, and they could no longer live in ignorance. Once you know something, you can never un-know it.

This inherent desire for ignorance in our culture is not justifiable. Stem cell research, cloning and gene therapy are the Faustian blasphemies of modern times, but the scientist investigating the benefits of such research is not mad Dr. Frankenstein. She/he is a member of a progressive scientific community, seeking to know human beings inside and out, and to use that knowledge to our benefit.

It comes down to this: Knowledge can be dangerous, especially if it is in the wrong hands, but what are the alternatives? Asimov can only answer with more questions:

“[Is] the response to be a retreat from knowledge? Are we prepared to […] return to the ape and forfeit the very essence of humanity? Or is knowledge to be used as itself a barrier against the danger it brings?”

Originally published here.


  1. Cool, I didnt know I,Robot was Asimov's creation.Isaac Asimov rox.
    Im sure the book will b better than that will smith movie.
    I noticed u hav invoked Adam n Eve more than once in ur blog *winky winky*

  2. Here's one problem I see: this society that depends so heavily on machinery, doesn't train many people who understand the machines.

    Before we become even more dependent on machines to take care of us, don't we need to take some steps to make sure there are enough well-trained humans to provide oversight?

    Nanotech, machine intelligence, and biotech are all extremely disruptive technologies. A lot of good things will come from them, but unless humans take the time to build in safety valves, countermeasures, and redundant paths, a lot of serious problems are going to crop up.

    This is one lazy society--pampered and intellectually lazy. Better to look at some of the things that could go wrong than to blithely assume it will all turn out okay, somehow.

  3. David Harmon12:38 PM

    Well, Clarke's Third Law of Technology was originally about writing SF, but it also applies pretty well to public opinion.... The movie version of "I, Robot" is basically a chromed-up monster movie; like all monster movies, it plays on the common fears of the time, in this case distrust of "the machines" in a world where "everyone else" seems to assume they're infallable and incorruptible. Now, as a computer programmer, I do tend to sympathize with that fear, but there's gotta be some better movies than that, in the idea!

    Have you ever read the "Top 10" graphic novels? They chronicle the police force of a city called "Neopolis", where everyone has super-powers. (After WW2, all the superheroes from both sides got shipped there.) At one point, they bring in a new officer -- a 9-foot robot from a machine-governed timeline. Some of the other officers are a bit prejudiced against "clickers" (robots), but "Joe" turns out to be savvy and sensitive, with a solid sense of humor.... At one point, he comes out with: "In your study of Neopolis law, have you encountered any references to Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics?" Partner answers: "Um, no..." Joe: "Good!" (At which point the reader may realize Joe's handled his last three cases without so much as firing a taser....)