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Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992) is credited as one of the greatest science fiction writers of all time, considered to be one of the "big three" of science fiction, along with Arthur C. Clarke and Robert A. Heinlein. Unlike most SF writers, he had genuine scientific credentials and also produced a lot of popular science books. He was an extremely prolific writer with broad interests - he published over 200 books, covering every section of the Dewey Decimal System except philosophy.
Originally, Asimov started in the field of biochemistry, earning a PhD in the subject in 1948 and taking a teaching position at Boston University's School of Medicine until he turned to writing full time in 1958. He is most famed for his writing on robotics but during the 1960s, he shifted his focus almost entirely to writing popular science, which was inspired by the public's new found interest in science following the launch of Sputnik in 1957. The high quality and diversity of his pop science work earned him the title of the "Great Explainer" and once prompted Kurt Vonnegut to ask him "how does it feel to know everything?" He considered himself a rationalist, humanist, and skeptic and also did some work in refuting superstition and pseudoscience.
Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics:
- First law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- Second law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- Third law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
In some of the later books, these rules apparently logically lead to "zeroth" law: "A robot may not harm Humanity or, through inaction, allow Humanity to come to harm." The I Robot series of short stories plays with these "rules", and endlessly exploits their weak links. For instance, what would happen to the laws if a human ordered a robot to kill someone, but threatened to kill themselves if the robot did not obey? Clearly, someone's head is going to explode at some point. When contradictions such as this arise, the robot is in danger of 'brain' damage, for which it may take years of 'robopsychology' to repair, if repair is even possible.[note 1] The first book does suffer heavily from a groundbreaker effect of sorts, in that while incredibly groundbreaking when it was first written, it's been copied and improved upon so much since that the original is now relatively boring. There are some good parts that we could definitely appreciate, such as a robotic religion complete with robotic supremacy,[note 2] but don't get into the book with exceptionally high expectations.
Another issue is that information needs to be available or the laws become meaningless. Discussed in his novel The Naked Sun was the potential for a robot aircraft to think that all other aircraft were robotic and thus the robot would be able to destroy aircraft full of civilians with ease. A robot could be ordered to poison some tea that no one was drinking, while a second robot could then be ordered to serve the tea if it didn't know about the first's actions.
In the film "Bicentennial Man", starring Robin Williams, a robot agrees to terminate the life of a human by unplugging her breathing machine. This supposedly does not violate the first law because the robot was relieving the human of her suffering. Unfortunately, a robot like this would decide to exterminate humanity if he came to accept the idea that "life is suffering", a doctrine promoted by religions such as Buddhism. Given that in his short stories robots have both developed religion and become the leaders of humanity, such a scenario is not so far-fetched. In fact, in one novel, a robot allowed Earth to become radioactive in order to force the humans to colonize space.
I Robot, the Movie
The 2004 film version of I, Robot resembles the book in the following particulars:
Asimov made many quotable statements but one relevant to RationalWiki's proclaimed purpose is:
“”There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."
|—Column in Newsweek (21 January 1980) |
Another quote from Asimov, a motto of a character in The Foundation, is often misunderstood:
“”Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.
This quote does not in fact refer to pacifism, but is an observation that open warfare is extremely wasteful and a leader who fails to avoid it is practically by definition incompetent. Instead, the Foundation defends itself through espionage, sabotage, religious dominance and other indirect means.
“”People are entirely too disbelieving of coincidence. They are far too ready to dismiss it and to build arcane structures of extremely rickety substance in order to avoid it. I, on the other hand, see coincidence everywhere as an inevitable consequence of the laws of probability, according to which having no unusual coincidence is far more unusual than any coincidence could possibly be.
|—The Planet That Wasn't|
More quotes can be found here.
The Sirius Mystery
The Sirius Mystery is a book by Robert Temple, which claims that the Dogon people were visited in the past by extraterrestrials from Sirius. What does this have to do with Asimov, you ask? Temple sent the book to Asimov to ask for his opinion, and Asimov remarked, "I couldn't find any mistakes in this book. That in itself is extraordinary", a statement which was then made part of the advertising blurb for the book. But Asimov did not actually support the book, saying, "Robert Temple on three different occasions, by mail and phone, attempted to get support from me and I steadfastly refused." He also wrote:
“”He sent me the manuscript which I found unreadable. Finally, he asked me point-blank if I could point out any errors in it and partly out of politeness, partly to get rid of him, and partly because I had been able to read very little of the book so that the answer was true, I said I could not point out any errors. He certainly did not have permission to use that statement as part of the promotion, I'll just have to be even more careful hereafter.
- Isaac Asimov Home Page
- Asimov on the threat of creationism (in 1981!) -- Archived from the original
- The Relativity of Wrong - see wronger than wrong
- Asimov's recurrent robopsychologist character, Susan Calvin, explains this on multiple occasions.
- The robot has limited information and cannot understand how he was created by such a pathetic thing as humans, thus they are all liars. The humans don't care, because the robot still manufactures stuff and they clearly didn't read enough Isaac Asimov yet
- Which wasn't even Asimov's in the first place, as it was lifted from a 1939 collection of stories by Eando Binder at the publisher's insistence
- "An Interview with Isaac Asimov", Phil Konstantin.
- I, Robprof: FBI feared much-loved science fiction author Isaac Asimov was Soviet agent, The Independent, November 8, 2013.
- The Sirius Mystery, excerpt from UFOs and Outer Space Mysteries by James Oberg.