Psycho-history and Robotics: the worlds of Asimov

Introduction

1. Background

2. History and Myth

a. The Myth Before the Myth: the Foundation and the Second Foundation

3. Social Structure

a. The crews as microcosms of society

b. The Women

c. The Social Outcasts

d. Homosexuality and Lesbianism

e. Inter-Racial Relationships

4. Forms of Government

a. Democracies

b. Dictatorships

c. Utopias/Dystopias

d. Other Forms

5. Politics and International Relations

a. Overview

b. Treaties and Conventions

6. Law and Order through Space and Time

a. Traditional ways of settling legal disputes and reaching verdicts

b. About the contemporary legal system

c. Examples of contemporary Legal Dilemmas

Protection of Privacy

Genetic Engineering/Cloning

Freedom of Information

d. About the futuristic legal system

The Prime Directive

Time Travel and Time Machines

Birth Control

Genetic Engineering

The use of Telepathy and Telekinesis

Criminal Law

Nanotechnology

Cryonics

Definition and Rights of Intelligent Life

Laws of Robotics

Corporate Laws

The Internet and the Control of Information

Election Laws and Procedures

7. Technology

1. Robotics and Computerization:

a. On Robotics

b. On Data

c. On Artificial Intelligence

2. Miniaturization:

3. Control of Information:

4. Overpopulation:

Summary

 

Psycho-history and Robotics: the worlds ofAsimov

Introduction

Isaac Asimov is considered to be one of the founding fathers of science fiction, together with Heinlein and Clark (and according to some, Bradbury). His greatness as a writer is indisputable, and so is his influence on the writers who came after him.

Asimov was born on January 2nd 1920 in Petrovichi, a small town near Smolensk, Russia, to a Jewish family that immigrated to United States when he was three. He grew up in Brooklyn, New York, where he saw Science Fiction magazines for the first time in his parents' candy store, and began to read them. In his late teens, he started writing stories himself and tried to sell them to magazines. John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Stories, took the young Asimov under his wing and became his mentor. In 1939 received a B. A. from the University of Columbia, and in 1948 receivehis Ph. D. in biochemistry. He joined the faculty of Boston University of, but is not a teacher. The university stopped paying his salary in 1958, as his income from book sales surpassed his income from his employment in the university (including a treatment for a Sci Fi Movie written at the request of former Beatle Paul McCartney, which was never produced).

Asimov remained in the faculty as an assistant professor and was promoted in 1979 to full professor. His personal papers from 1965 and onwards can be found at the Boston University library.

His first wife was Gertrude Blugerman; they were married in July 26th 1942 and had two children, David (1951) and Robin (1955). They were divorced in 1973, and Asimov remarried that same year with Janet O. Jeppson.

Asimov died on April 6th in 1992 from HIV he contracted as a result of a contaminated blood transfusion during a bypass operation in 1983, a fact that was kept secret for 10 years after his death and was only revealed in a biography published by his widow Janet, "It's Been a Good Life". He was a member of the MENSA organization, which has a prerequisite of a 140 IQ for admission, and in acknowledgement of his work, Asteroid 5020 was named after him.

That's it about the man. No addition is necessary.

1. Background

Asimov became famous mainly because his two great Sagas, the Foundation saga and the Robots saga the Foundation saga, containing seven books, won the Hugo award in 1966 for the best series in the history of Science Fictional. The Saga began as a collection of short stories, which ended up compiled into three volumes. Only later did Asimov add two prequels and two sequels in order to combine all the books in to a single "futuristic history".

The Robots Series also had two books added later on, in the attempt to unify both Sagas, but Asimov died before he could complete this task.

Generally, it can be said that Asimov's short robot stories describe the near future of Earth. They are followed by the Robots Saga, describing the expansion of human colonies in the universe millennia later, then the Empire Saga describing human domination of the galaxy, and finally the Foundation Saga, describing the fall of the Empire and its succession by the Foundation.

Asimov also wrote many short stories not necessarily connected to any of the Sagas, amongst which is Nightfall, chosen in 1968 by the Science Fiction Writers of America as "the best science fiction short story ever written" (a title it holds to this very day). The story was later expanded into a novel by the same title (with Robert Silverberg). 

2. History and Myth

a. The Myth Before the Myth: the Foundation and the Second Foundation

The Foundation Universe follows the dynamics of the Roman Empire in its heyday, as indicated by the names Asimov gave to planets, worlds and cities.

3. Social Structure

Psychohistory depends on the idea that, while one cannot foresee the actions of a particular individual, the laws of statistics as applied to large groups of people could predict the general flow of future events. Asimov used the analogy of a gas: an observer has great difficulty in predicting the motion of a single molecule in a gas, but can predict the mass action of the gas to a high level of accuracy. (Physicists know this as the Kinetic theory.) Asimov applied this concept to the population of his fictional Galactic Empire, which numbered a quintillion. The character responsible for the science's creation, Hari Seldon, established two axioms:

1. That the population whose behavior was modeled should be sufficiently large

2. That the population should remain in ignorance of the results of the application of psychohistorical analyses.

There is a third underlying axiom of Psychohistory, which is trivial and thus not stated by Seldon in his Plan:

3. That Human Beings are the only sentient intelligence in the Galaxy.

This concept is not unique to the realm of Sci Fi. On the 30th of November '02, the Chicago Tribune carried an article about an attempt by a company named ComScore Networks Inc. to apply the principles of psychohistory to forecasting economic trends; An interesting attempt to apply the principles of psychohistory on the Middle East Conflict was also made, but the way to truly predict long term social or economic trends is yet to be found.

a. The crews as microcosms of society

 

 

b. The Women

Dr. Susan Calvin was the chief robopsychologist at US Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., the major manufacturer of robots in the 21st century. She was the main character in many short stories from the books I, Robot and The Complete Robot.

 

Susan Calvin was born in 1982 (the same year her eventual employer was incorporated) and graduated from Columbia University in 2003. After post-graduate research in cybernetics, she joined US Robots in 2008 as their first Robopsychologist.

 

Typically, Asimov portrays Dr. Calvin as a highly driven woman, focused on her work and divorced from normal emotions, almost more "robotic" than her mechanical characters. She likes robots considerably more than human beings; in "Evidence", when asked "Are robots so different from men?", she replies, "Worlds different. Robots are essentially decent." Asimov's own stories leave her misanthropy largely unexplained, but Harlan Ellison's screenplay adaptation of I, Robot investigates its origins, in the end concluding that her attitudes are rather well-founded.

 

One of the continuing themes in Asimov's work is the essential irony that, although the Three Laws of Robotics make robots value human beings over themselves, Susan Calvin's estimation of robotic decency may not be entirely wrong.

 

An excerpt from I, Robot has this to say about Dr. Calvin: "She is a small woman, but there is a towering strength in her face. Tensile strength, that speaks to endurance, to maintaining in the imperfect world. Her mouth is thin, and her face pale. Grace lives in her features, and intelligence; but she is not an attractive woman. She is not one of those women who in later years it can be said of them, 'She must have been a beauty when she was younger.' Susan Calvin was always plain. And clearly, always a powerful personality."

 

It was not until a mention of her in The Robots of Dawn, Asimov's third Elijah Baley Robot novel, that the events of her era (the 21st century) were concretely tied into those of Baley's era, at least two-and-a-half millennia further into the future, and thus into the greater Foundation universe as a whole.

 

Susan Calvin died in 2064, shortly after retiring from US Robots. 

c. The Social Outcasts

 

 

d. Homosexuality and Lesbianism

 

 

e. Inter-Racial Relationships

 

 

4. Forms of Government

 

 

a. Democracies

 

 

b. Dictatorships

 

 

c. Utopias/Dystopias

 

 

d. Other Forms

The Foundation

The Empire

The Second Foundation

5. Politics and International Relations

 

 

a. Overview

 

 

b. Treaties and Conventions

 

 

6. Law and Order through Space and Time

 

 

a. Traditional ways of settling legal disputes and reaching verdicts

 

 

b. About the contemporary legal system

 

 

c. Examples of contemporary Legal Dilemmas

 

 

Protection of Privacy

 

 

Genetic Engineering/Cloning

 

 

Freedom of Information

 

 

d. About the futuristic legal system

 

 

The Prime Directive

 

 

Time Travel and Time Machines

 

 

Birth Control

 

 

Genetic Engineering

 

 

The use of Telepathy and Telekinesis

 

 

Criminal Law

 

 

Nanotechnology

 

 

Cryonics

In ** the corporate management votes on whether to defrost a member of the board who was put under cryogenics.

Definition and Rights of Intelligent Life

In Asimov's Universe there are no non-human intelligent life forms (except robots). There are no Magicians, wizards or demons either.

See also here.

 Laws of Robotics

As I've already mentioned, if iron laws do exist in Sci Fi, they are Asimov's Laws of Robotics, which I'll review briefly:

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

A robot must obey orders given to 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.

the Zeroth Law:

"A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm."

A condition stating that the Zeroth Law may not be broken was added to the original Laws.

The Three Laws are, in my opinion, the only attempt to foresee the future legally wise, and they serve as a basis for the discussion if the very definition of intelligent life, whether biological-organic or mechanic, corporeal or spiritual.

the Bicentennial Man

 

Andrew Martin of the Bicentennial Man is a robot who takes a 200 years journey towards Humanity, while trying to avoid being destroyed by its creators.

 

I, Robot

 

Sonny of I, Robot is an example of what happens when a Robot's creator tries to give him human emotions.

 

Note the following quote from the Movie:

 

Spooner: Robots don't feel fear. They don't feel anything. They don't get hungry. They don't sleep.

 

Sonny: I do. I have even had dreams.

Spooner: Human beings have dreams. Even dogs have dreams, but not you. You are just a machine. An imitation of life. Can a robot write a symphony?
Can a robot turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?

Sonny: Can you?

 

Incidentally, the Movie was tailor-made for Will Smith, as we can see form the following comparison with Men In Black, also starring Will Smith:

 

 

 

MIB

I , Robot

Chases on foot an Alien Bug (assumed to be an escaped felon)

Chases on foot a Robot (assumed to be an escaped felon, though by mistake)

Discovers the Other Side

Discovers the other Side

Fights an enemy bent on world domination (a Robot not subject to Asimov’s Laws)

Fights an enemy bent on world domination (an Alien Bug)

Assisted by a friendly Alien Bug

Assisted by a friendly Robot

The command center (as seen in Paycheck)

The command center (as seen in Paycheck)

Hates cockroaches (for no particular reason)

Hates robots (because a robot saved him and not the little girl)

Adopts a dead man’s cat

Adopts a dead man’s cat

A philosophical discussion about robotics versus creativity; was the new breed of robots created in order to save man from himself?

Fixes the arm like Schwarzenegger in Terminator (only with a little less gore)

A loud white superior officer

A loud black superior officer

 

 

 Incidentally, Sonny us an unusual example of a robot joining forces with humans fighting the monstrous super-computer.

 

The cinematic version to Asimov's classic novel was loosely based on the first book of the robots series. In the book, by the way, the narrator was the robot, and in the Movie (beware, spoiler!) they tried to manipulate us into thinking, if only for a moment, that the detective is also a robot. And where exactly do we draw the line? Consider yourselves warned!

On Data as an Asimovian Robot click here.

Corporate Laws

U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men (U.S. Robotics) deals mainly in Robotics and AI.

U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men was founded in 1982 by Lawrence Robertson. Dr. Susan Calvin was the first, and for many years, the only robopsychologist at U.S. Robots, and is the main character in many of Asimov's short stories, usually dealing with robot problems in the laboratory. In other robot stories Greg Powell and Mike Donovan, field engineers for the company, try to solve robot issues in the field. The short stories also mention Alfred Lanning and Peter Bogert, the Directors of Research (first Lanning, and then Bogert) during Calvin's time at the corporation.

The physical location of the company is unclear. Ultimately, factories are established in many parts of the world, but in one story, "Robot AL-76 Goes Astray", the main factory is said to be located in Schenectady, New York (which implies a connection or allusion to the General Electric Corporation).

The company's unofficial motto is "No employee makes the same mistake twice. He is fired the first time."

The Internet and the Control of Information

 

 

Election Laws and Procedures

The UNIVAC I (UNIVersal Automatic Computer I) was the first commercial computer produced in the United States. The first UNIVAC was delivered to the United States Census Bureau on March 31, 1951, and was dedicated on June 14 that year. The fifth machine (built for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission) was used by CBS to predict the result of the 1952 presidential election. With a sample of just 1% of the voting population it correctly predicted that Dwight Eisenhower would win.

Apparently this was the inspiration to the idea that a computer will predict election results, instead of actually holding elections, and that the United States will become by 2008 (!) the first big electronic democracy, as described in the short story Franchise, written by Asimov in1955. Anyone who considers changing the elections procedure in Israel should read this story. Maybe the solution to the problem will be found there. Incidentally, Asimov named his computer Multivac.

Is that any more or less democratic than the present method? You be the judges…

7. Technology

The following is a review of some of the main technological themes in Asimov's work:

1. Robotics and Computerization:

a. On Robotics

b. On Data

Is Star Trek: TNG's Data an Asimovian robot?

Data has 100,000 terabytes of memory (equiv to 100,000,000 one-GB hard drives). When on trial, he stated that he had a storage capacity of 800 quadrillion bits (100 quadrillion bytes). Data processes 60 trillion computations per second. If you'd like to compare Data's 100,000 terabytes of storage capacity to something real-world, someone mentioned a chart that set the maximum storage capacity of the human brain to approximately 3 teraBITS, which would mean that Data's brain could contain everything from over 260,000 human brains.

Is Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation an Asimovian robot?

Asimov's key insight was that, inasmuch as we engineer our tools to be safe to use, we would do the same with robots once we start making them -- and that the main safeguards for an intelligent being are its ethics. We would, therefore, build ethics into our robots to keep them going off on uncontrollable killing sprees.

In some sense, the specific Three (Four) Laws are themselves an engineering detail, the robotic equivalent of the Ten Commandments -- it is a specific ethical system but not the only one possible. In Asimov's universe, they are the basis for robotic ethics and so absolutely fundamental to robotic design that it is virtually impossible to build a robot without them.

Asimov tended not to let other people use his specific Laws of Robotics, but his essential insight - that robots will have in-built ethical systems -- is freely used.

In particular, Data is an "Asimovian" robot because he does have an in-built ethical system. He does not have the Three Laws, however (witness the episode "Measure of Man" in which he refuses to follow a direct order from a superior officer [Second Law] without invoking either danger to a specific human [First Law] or the higher needs of all of humanity [Zeroth Law]). Moreover, his ethical programming is not fundamental to his design (his prototype, Lore, lacks it altogether, and Data's ethical program is turneoff for much of "Descent, part II")

Asimov stated that Roddenberry asked for his permission to make Data a positronic robot after the fact. Asimov himself had no input into the character. There were plans to have Asimov appear on the show as a holodeck simulation and talk to Data (just as Stephen Hawking did). A combination of Asimov's location and ill-health made this impossible.

Article Credits: Otto "Hackman" Heuer (ottoh@cfsmo.honeywell.com), and the Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition

c. On Artificial Intelligence

Asimov, who was as much a scientist as a science-fiction writer, changed his attitude towards artificial intelligence, when the personal computer revolution proved that the danger of the computer substituting human intelligence is still very far away. In two of his articles, written 10 years apart, this change can be visible, when Asimov discussed the question of man’s superiority over the machine.

 

 

2. Miniaturization:

 

 

3. Control of Information:

4. Overpopulation:

 

 

Asimov, who, as we know, never boasted excessive modesty, tried to calculate the degree of severity of the overpopulation threat, or in other words, how long will it take until the Earth collapses under the weight of its population, or the total mass of humanity is equal to the total mass of the universe. In this context, he described himself as a pessimist, and could not believe technological innovations such as water desalination, nuclear energy and the colonization of other planets will develop quickly enough to catch up with population growth rate – doubling every 35 years. He also doubted the effectiveness of existing birth control methods (he was actually right about that - see what is happening in China, India and Egypt today) in preventing the disaster or even mitigating it.

His calculation is based on two basic assumptions:

1) There are more people today than there have ever been;

2) The number of people rises at a faster rate than any in other time in history.

According to the calculation, in 2436, population density everywhere would be double than in 1970’ Manhattan, even if mankind be able to colonize Greenland, the Himalayas, the Sahara and Antarctica; The "absolute end" will come in 4856 years (i. e. in 6826), but this date is meaningless, since all species of flora and fauna which can be used as food for humans would gradually become extinct long before that…

Here is another article about overpopulation, presenting an opposite point of view:

The addition of billions more people was once going to mean the end of the world as we know it. So what happened? Donald McNeil investigates.

Remember the population bomb, the fertility explosion set to devour the world's food and suck up or pollute all its air and water? The bomb has by no means been defused, but over the past three decades much of its Malthusian detonation power has leaked out.

Birthrates in developed countries from Italy to Korea, as well as Australia, have sunk below the levels needed for their populations to replace themselves; the typical ages of marriage and pregnancy have risen; and the use of birth control has soared. The threat is now more regional than global, explosive only in places such as India and Pakistan.

Since 1968, when the United Nations Population Division predicted that the world population, now 6.3 billion, would grow to at least 12 billion by 2050, the agency has regularly revised its estimates downward. Now it expects population to plateau at 9 billion.

Where did those billions go? Millions of babies have died, a fraction of them from AIDS, far more from malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia, even measles. More millions have been aborted, often, in countries such as India and China, to avoid the birth of a girl.

But even AIDS and abortion are drops in the demographic bucket. The real missing billions are the babies who were never conceived, because their would-be elder brothers and sisters survived, or because women's lives improved. In the rich West, women went to university and decided that educating three children would be unaffordable. In the poor Eastern or Southern parts of the globe, women found a sweatshop job and didn't need a fourth or fifth child to fetch firewood.

"On a farm, children help with the pigs or chickens," the director of the UN Population Division, Joseph Chamie, says. Nearly half the world's people live in cities now, and "when you move to a city, children are not as helpful".

Beyond that, simple public health measures such as dams for clean water, vitamins for pregnant women, hand-washing for midwives, oral rehydration salts for babies, vaccines for youngsters and antibiotics for all helped double world life expectancy in the 20th century to 60 years.

More surviving children means less incentive to give birth as often. As late as 1970, the world's median fertility level was 5.4 births per woman; in 2000, it was 2.9. Barring war, famine, epidemic or disaster, a country needs a birthrate of 2.1 children per woman to hold steady.

The best-known example of shrinkage is Italy, whose women were once symbols of fecundity partly because of the country's peasant traditions and partly because of its Catholicism, which rejects birth control. By 2000, Italy's fertility rate was Western Europe's lowest, at 1.2 births per woman. Its population is expected to drop 20 per cent by the middle of this century.

Even in North Africa, regarded as the great exception to the shrinking population trend, birthrates have dropped somewhat. Egypt's, for example, went from 5.4 births per woman in 1970 to 3.6 in 1999.

Chamie says the numbers disprove what he calls the "myth of Muslim fertility", an unfair characterization, he says, that will disappear as the lives of Muslim women ease. He gave Jordanians as an example: they had eight children per woman in the 1960s. Now they have 3.5.

Old notions of Asian fertility are similarly false. China has pushed its fertility rate below that of France; Japan's population is withering with age; and after five decades of industrialisation, South Korea, a mostly rural country with six births per woman in the 1950s, now has 1.17 births per woman.

Alarmed by the trends, many countries are paying citizens to get pregnant. Treasurer Peter Costello, announcing baby subsidies in this year's budget, told people to "go home and do your patriotic duty tonight". In Estonia, the Government pays for a year's maternity leave. Japanese prefectures arrange singles cruises. The US, unique among developed countries, has little need to finance romance because its birthrate has held steady at 2.13 per woman. Its growth, about 3 million people a year, is mostly fuelled by immigration.

Half the world's population growth is in six countries: India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Indonesia, Bangladesh and China (despite its slowed birthrate). That makes doom-saying trickier than it was in 1968, when Dr Paul Ehrlich frightened many with his book The Population Bomb.

Ehrlich, a professor of population studies and biology at Stanford University, now says he has been "pleasantly surprised" by global changes that have undermined the book's gloomiest projections. They include China's one-child policy and the rapid adoption of better seeds and fertilisers by Third World farmers, meaning that more mouths can be fed. He notes, however, that about 600 million people still go to bed hungry each night.

But Ehrlich still argues that Earth's "optimal population" is 2 billion. That's different from the maximum supportable size, which depends on the consumption of resources. "I have severe doubts that we can support even two billion if they all live like citizens of the US", he says. "The world can support a lot more vegetarian saints than Hummer-driving idiots".

So how will it all end? We'll just have to wait and see…

Summary

In 1995 three famous Sci Fi writers - Gregory Benford (a physicist, brother of physicist James Benford and his collaborator both in physics and Sci Fi, winner of the Nebula Award for Timescape) Greg Bear, a biologist as well aa Sci Fi writer (Blood Music), and David Brin – undertook to write a Trilogy to complement the Foundation Saga, with the encouragement and support of Asimov’s estate. Benford’s novel, Foundation’s Fear, appeared in 1997; Bear’s novel, entitled Foundation and Chaos, appeared a year later. Brin’s novel followed about a year after that. Here you can read a joint interview given by the three of them.

At the same time, no less from four of Asimov's works are rumored to be in different stages of adaptation for the Big Screen in different studios. For further details check the IMDB website.

For a full catalogue of Isaac Asimov's writings click here.

And on a trivial note – did you know that in Arabic, Foundation is translated as… Al-Qaeda?