Visionaries of the future: Isaac Asimov



Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was aware of the risks of technology, but always celebrated the possibilities of science. He reinvented the way we see robots: instead of a threat to humankind, Asimov pictured robots as a huge aid to humans. Many see him as the first roboticist, ahead of his time and a big influence to today’s robo-producers.

When Asimov grew up, in the pulp science fiction he was reading, robots were always depicted as automated metal monsters who start out as workers and than evolve into destroying their makers, humankind. Asimov imagined a different world, in which robots are our helpers and just as normal a part in our daily lives as our electric kitchen appliances. His robots were not violent monsters, but highly trustworthy machines presenting challenges concerning complex relationships with humans.

I, Robot (2004) with Will Smith

In his famous I, Robot series, he starts presenting the love-hate relationship between humans and robots. Susan, a robo-psychologist, works for a firm that produces an obedient domestic Robot called Robbie. Robbie is sold to a family and grows very close to the young daughter. However, the parents are a little technophobic and decide to get rid of the robot. Eventually Robbie saves the little girl from an almost-accident and is accepted back in the family.

We have not yet achieved the invention of robots as evolved as Robbie, but science has come a long way into realizing the idea of helpful robots.

For example, USC’s Maya Mataric is working on fun, safe and helpful robots that can help humans. They can perform household tasks, but also interact with human and can for example work with stroke patients or kids with autism.

Besides the sunny side of robots interacting and working with humans, Asimov also gave thought on the possible challenges advanced robots might pose. In all his stories the relationship between humans and robots is considered in many possible ways. In 1939 a pattern was established in the way Asimov let his robots behave. This pattern came to be known as Asimov’s three laws of robotics. These laws would prevent robots from ever harming humankind:

  1. a robot may not injure a human being or through inaction allow a human being to come to harm
  2. a robot must obey command given by a human being, unless that contradicts the first law
  3. let no harm come to the robot, as long as it doesn’t conflict with the first or second laws

Nowadays one might consider these laws as an early version of an operating system. Robots working alongside humans eventually became reality in 1962. Perhaps the most famous example being General Motors, who brought the first industrial robot, Unimate, to life on the assembly line. Besides from assembly lines, robots can now also perform other specialised tasks, like surgery or direct orchestra’s. Watch this short movie for more info:

Of course this brings up the topic of robots replacing humans on the workforce. Some people have used their jobs because of robots and automated processes. However, one can also view the robot as yet another tool, that works great if used correctly.

But Asimov thought even beyond the possibilities that robots might one day replace human workers. He saw robots not just as a tool, but prophesied the possibility that science would construct robots that were self sufficient and emotional entities.

AmazonIn ‘the naked sun’ Asimov portraits an antagonist inspired on the occurrences in Nazi-Germany. This antagonist brainwashes robots to break the first law of robotics. He programmes them to no longer perceive human beings, but inorganic material and tricks the robots into killing people. Interesting is that Asimov always depicts humans misusing the robots leading to catastrophe in his stories.

Asimov was known to view human violence was kind of a last resort, instead wouldn’t it be better to let robots do the fighting so as not to endanger human life? Nowadays many forms of robotics are used for military reasons. Take for example the robots from the company IRobot

In 1957, the Soviet Unions Sputnik satellite beats the US into space. Though many see this as a cold war threat, Asimov is inspired and foresees the possibilities of space exploration for mankind. He shifts over to writing non-fiction and produces hundreds of articles and books on scientific topics. He became the writer ‘other science fiction writers would call if they needed advice’.

Eventually, Asimov returns to science fiction. He pictures robots in charge of a space station. He works side by side with humans. Today, NASA is using just such robots:

AmazonAsimov refines his vision of robots as a necessity for the evolution of man when he writes the novel ‘Bicentennial man’. He tells the tale of a sentient robot who decides he wants to be more than a robot and wants to have the same rights as humans. This blurring of the line between technology and humans is now known as the ‘transhumanism’ movement. Transhumanistst believe man will augment themselves through bio-engineering and artificial intelligence. Eventually, robots and humans will not only be living together but will become one.

His so said favourite story was ‘The last question’. In this story, he presents the conflict and burden that comes with ‘knowing everything’. People ask the smartest computer ‘How can we prevent the universe from ending?’. The computer answers he doesn’t have enough information to answer that question. For eons generations of humans keep asking the question, the computer keeps growing and absorbing data and eventually human beings disappaerd because there is no more need for them. The computer has enmassed all the information in the world and has the choice to either wipe out the universe or recreate it.

Asimov presents us the idea that man and machine will live in harmony and will eventually evolve into a collective mind or a collective being. This idea of singularity represents his lifelong optimism about the future.

About Silke de Wilde

I am a foresight-expert and practitioner. As a freelancer, I help organisations think about the future and how to get there, for example by trendanalysis and scenarioplanning. As a facilitator I give workshops to inspire and help people think out of the box. I'm one of the co-founders of the Dutch Future Society. I also organise training in foresight at the School for Foresight. And in the time that's left I like getting into science fiction and working on my phd-research: Cities constructing futures. Yes, you might say I'm a future-fanatic, and I'm grateful that I'm able to make a living out of doing what I love. Thank you for visiting Futurista and please don't be a stranger!
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