The dark days before Christmas come with one massive advantage: plenty of time to read, preferably with tea and chocolate within reach. Last week I finally read a book that’s been on my list for a long time: Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot. It’s not really a novel as such, but more of a loosely connected collection of short stories, each of them dealing with the complexities of integrating robotics and AI into a human society.
I have to confess I was somewhat put off initially by the 2004 film version, which in true online-shouter-fashion I haven’t seen, but which to me always seemed like an archetypical boring scifi film with little, if any, thought-provoking content to offer. I still haven’t seen the film, so I’m not sure whether my harsh verdict is correct, but it should be said that film and book differ notably. The film merely takes a few characters and ideas from the book and inserts them into a familiar robots-turn-against-their-creators narrative which diverges sharply from Asimov’s storyline.
In the book, robots and people live peacefully together, bound as robots are by the Three Laws of Robotics. Where they appear to disobey, there’s always a logical (usually technological) explanation. It’s a refreshing diversion from the familiar “Frankenstein” narrative which Asimov reportedly disliked himself and explores instead how robots and people could live together in a more productive way.
The result is often funny and sometimes even moving. Asimov’s robots are machines but also characters. They have personalities, they form relationships with people, and while programmed to obey, often involuntarily reveal the inconsistencies of human society. Robots force their human masters to think and as such they are powerful thought machines.
Although the intelligent robots Asimov describes are not (yet) a feature of our everyday life, the book does pose some questions that are still highly relevant sixty (yes, SIXTY) years after its first publication. With Elon Musk warning us of the dangers of AI, Asimov’s stories have become cautionary tales that could help us think about the impact this development may have on society as we know it. Robots and AI (yes, I know they’re different things) have the potential to make life more efficient and productive. But as is the case with every type of technology, there’s a risk of things going wrong if said development isn’t properly thought through.
One of I, Robot’s stories, for example, features a robot who disappears from a space colony. This disappearance is not caused by its own malfunctioning or its ability to come up with malicious plans, but by its very need to follow human orders coupled with the human tendency to push limits and ignore rules. Technology is neither a gift of the gods nor an uncontrollable outside threat, it is created by humans, and should be carefully managed by them.
The fact that this book was written such a long time ago demonstrates the power of literature to function as a fictional lab where extra-textual developments and ideas can be critically explored. This critical power can endure long after the book’s initial publication and even the death of its creator. Just like George Orwell’s work is eerily relevant in the context of today’s prominence of fake news and net neutrality, Asimov’s text is still a highly relevant exploration of the perils that come with intelligence of our own making.