Strengths and Weaknesses of Isaac Asimov
Dr. Paul Shackley
Isaac Asimov thought originally and dialectically about robots.
No one knows whether an honest politician was a good man or a humaniform robot
because the latter’s behaviour would have been indistinguishable from the
former’s. (For this and references covering other points in the current article,
Thus, human-robot interactions are mutually transformative. Asimov, an entirely secular sf writer, considers mankind’s relationship to its creatures, robots, but not to its creator, if any. He also describes the internal conflict of rational beings programmed with immutable Laws:
“ ‘If the Laws of Robotics, even the First Law [against harming human beings], are not absolutes, and if human beings can modify them, might it not be that perhaps, under proper conditions, we ourselves might mod-’
“Giskard said, faintly, ‘Go no further.’
“Daneel said, a slight hum obscuring his voice, ‘I go no further.’”1
“ ‘Then First Law is not enough and we must-’
“He could go no further, and both robots lapsed into helpless silence.”2
Robots must obey the Laws but may reason about how to apply them and can only act on current knowledge. Thus, Asimov imagines unexpected outcomes. Robots cannot harm and must obey human beings. Therefore, robots in spaceships can be ordered to attack other spaceships on the assumption that they also contain only robots and can be ordered to bombard planets if they are not told that the latter are inhabited. Robots can be told that what looks like a human being is not a human being.
Robot assistants cannot be ordered not to interrupt experiments involving humanly acceptable risks because obedience is subordinate to protection. Lying harms human beings by depriving them of the truth but a telepathic robot knows that the truth sometimes hurts. This contradiction destroys his brain, including the evidence of how he became telepathic. A robot who perceives that an attempted rescue of an endangered human being would be both self-destructive and unsuccessful might then obey the lesser imperative of self-protection by not acting.
Roger MacBride Allen’s post-Asimov trilogy experiments with New Laws that maintain human superiority but allow some robotic autonomy.
Asimov simplified for fictional purposes. He knew very well that history and science do not develop as he described them in his future history. An Empire is not preceded by generations saying, “We must build an Empire”. A science, such as Asimov’s fictitious “psychohistory”, is not preceded by a scientist wondering whether he can develop a science called “psychohistory”.
The collective organism, “Gaia”, gives access to common memories but does not seem to negate individuality, as the characters claim. They discuss Gaia but Asimov does not describe Gaian experience. One character argues that collective consciousness is necessary to unite humanity against extragalactic invaders but why should beings capable of intergalactic travel invade? As Alan Moore’s character, Skizz, says:
“When technology…has reached…a certain level…weapons are redundant. When you already have…all that you need, then…why fight?”3
Asimov cannot conceive of mature human beings being able to recognise their common interests without being merged into a common organism and cannot transcend power politics. While saying that extragalactic beings would be incomprehensible to us, he assumes that they would strive to dominate each other.
His psychohistorians, supposedly able to understand each other completely, turn out to have flawed personal relationships. They use their “mental powers” only to manipulate or control others semihypnotically, which is antithetical to any attempt to understand and genuinely help others. These mental powers, not implied by the original concept of psychohistory, are a deus ex machina plot device enabling the psychohistorians to outmanoeuvre the unpredictable mentally powerful mutant who had upset their Plan.
When Asimov later describes the career of the first psychohistorian, Seldon, he presents him not as combining psychohistory with advanced psychology but as developing psychohistory while identifying and gathering together individuals already possessing rudimentary mental powers. Novels about the young Seldon would have been better if they had not anticipated the Fall of the Empire or psychohistory but had simply described the early career of an Imperial mathematician. Novels set on the unfallen Trantor, a planet-wide city, would have been worthwhile if they had reflected on urban history from the earliest terrestrial cities through the “Caves of Steel” of Asimov’s Robot novels to their Trantorian culmination.
Asimov comments that speech transmits thoughts imperfectly. However, abstract thinking is internalised language. Seldon’s sociology is said to be generalised from individual psychology. However, individuals originate in social contexts. Asimov adds that Seldon’s psychology is based on the mathematical understanding of bodies and brains which “…had to be traced down to nuclear forces.”4 Such reductionism denies emergent properties and contradicts Asimov’s assumption of a qualitative difference between physical and mental sciences.
Asimov forgets that his psychohistorians cannot transmit information across space because he describes them doing so. It is implausible that Imperials and their successors travel as fast as they do within the galaxy but have never ventured beyond it, especially since Asimov did write one earlier story in which non-humans escaped to the Magellanic Clouds.
When a robopsychologist suggests destroying an entire batch of robots in order to eliminate the dangerous modified robot hiding among them, Asimov does not acknowledge that the proposed destruction of conscious and intelligent beings raises any moral problem.
In different works, three knowing elites, time-travellers, robotic brains and psychohistorians, manipulate society for the common good but Asimov never considers that, since social interactions are our activities, we collectively might come to understand and control them without needing a minority to do it for us.
I think that Asimov raises important issues but, usually, addresses them inadequately.
1. Isaac Asimov, Robots And Empire (London: Grafton Books, 1986), p. 198.
2. ibid, p. 201.
3. Alan Moore and Jim Baikie, Skizz (Oxford: Rebellion, 2005), p. 58.
4. Isaac Asimov, Second Foundation (London: Panther, 1964), p. 84.