March 05, 2013

Do we need overseers to make sure we don't destroy ourselves?

For all we see/hear about how our [future] creations will eventually turn on us and possibly destroy us (The Terminator, The Matrix, Battlestar Galactica, Colossus: The Forbin Project, I, Robot, the Sentinels in the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past), there is is a highly regarded well-known science fiction series that features human creations which seek to save us at virtually any cost: Isaac Asimov's combined Foundation, Empire and Robot universe. These series were always loosely related in Asimov's early days; it wasn't until the 1980s that he began to "officially" connect them. The original Asimov works in each area appeared in the 1950s, and covered approximately some 15,000 years of future human history. Humanity's key development wasn't so much the hyperspatial Jump, but the robot. Asimov's Robot novels are loosely tied to his early Robot short stories, many of which feature noted robot genius Susan Calvin (played by the gorgeous Bridget Moynihan in I, Robot). By the Robot novels' time, some robots have been built in Man's image -- literally. The Spacer societies -- those who have settled the first fifty extra-solar planets -- have developed and made use of these humanoid servants for myriad purposes. The most popular -- and ultimately most influential -- of these robots is R. Daneel Olivaw.

R. Daneel (the "R" standing for "Robot") becomes the partner of noted human detective Elijah Bailey in helping to solve several high-profile killings. (See: The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun and The Robots of Dawn.) Another robot, [R.] Giskard Reventlov, was constructed with the ability to detect, read, and influence human thoughts. In the crucial connecting novel Robots and Empire, Giskard conceives of the pivotal "Zeroth Law" which overrides Asimov's legendary "Three Laws of Robotics" by permitting robots to act out of regard for humanity as a whole instead of individual humans (the First Law). Using this new Zeroth Law, Giskard allows a madman to make Earth's crust radioactive, thus forcing the vast majority of humanity to venture forth and begin a new wave of settlement across the galaxy. All in the name of preserving humanity.

But that's far from all. R. Daneel Olivaw becomes humanity's ultimate guide, conceiving of various plans through the millennia to maintain and preserve humanity's dominance, and survival, in the Milky Way. Asimov died in 1992 but his estate permitted other authors to "play" in his universe. The "Killer Bs" -- David Brin, Greg Bear, Gregory Benford -- together put out "The Second Foundation Trilogy," which greatly expands upon Isaac's ideas and concepts. The ultimate finale is Brin's Foundation's Triumph which pretty much explains everything you ever wanted to know about regarding the Galactic Empire/Foundation. Perhaps the most controversial was Olivaw's use of "mentalic dampers" -- hidden satellites around each human planet (20 million in all!) which kept the populace calm and tranquil, but also diminished creativity and curiosity. This, psychohistory's and the Foundation's inventor Hari Seldon finally realizes, is what has kept humanity's technology curve static for so very, very long. It was the robots fulfilling their purpose to the extreme ultimate ends.

In another science fiction universe, and one whose time-frame is much closer to the present day, that of Larry Niven's "Known Space," it is a group dubbed the ARM -- the Amalgamated Regional Militia or the police force of the United Nations, which is dedicated (in large part) to suppressing advanced technologies that could endanger the delicate balance of peace which Earth enjoys beginning more-or-less by the late 22nd century. Some of the earliest tales of the ARM are featured in The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton. Hamilton is an ARM agent whose arm was severed in a space mining accident. However, he developed a "psychic arm" which in many ways is superior to the real thing. One of the technologies Hamilton stumbles upon (and has to help suppress) is a "time retarder device."

As humans move into the 23rd and 24th centuries, many extra-solar colonies are settled. In the Niven-authorized "Man-Kzin Wars, we learn that the ARM has "secret societies" that have traveled to the various human worlds to continue their work. The "Man-Kzin Wars" books are assemblages of short stories detailing the centuries-long conflict between humanity and the felinoid Kzin. In many of these tales, we see how the ARM resorts to making use of many suppressed technologies, discoveries and inventions in order to defeat the Kzin. One of these is a stasis field which Earth uses in its most destructive counter-attack against the Kzin to help liberate the human colony at Alpha Centauri. In another, the ARM plans to unleash the "Tree of Life" virus, detailed in Niven's novel Protector, on the planet Wunderland. This would turn a substantial number of humans into the ultra-strong and ultra-smart Protectors who would be more than a match for the brutal Kzin. Yet another is using an A.I. (artificial intelligence) as the brain of an interstellar vessel. All of these inventions/technologies are stored in an ultra-secret "black vault" on the moon.

So, back to the original question: Will we need such overseers to ensure that we don't destroy ourselves? Surely we cannot permit rogue regimes (and terrorist groups) to acquire weapons of mass destruction; however, contemporary [international] laws largely hamstring more powerful (and lawful) nations such as the United States from thwarting such proliferation. In Niven's future Earth, the United Nations was the planet's governing body which passed laws by global referendum. This is what empowered the ARM to do what it did. Niven's United Nations makes the present-day UN appear even more of a eunuch than it already is.

Humanity's present technological curve is staggering when you stop to think about it. Consider how far we've come in just 100 years. Then imagine where we could be 100 years from now. Brin's robotic intervention can account for avoiding this staggering fact in his Foundation book; Niven retroactively incorporated many newer technologies such as nanotechnology (that he didn't/couldn't foresee) into his later novels, in particular his last Ringworld sequel novel, and the "Fleet of Worlds" series. Without someone, or something, to "watch over us," the manner of destruction we could face is varied. A rogue nation or group could set off an EMP which could set large areas back to the Stone Age. The same entities could release a pathogen to wipe out a sizable chunk of the population. And what about a "gray out" from nanotechnology run amok?

The ever-present thin line balancing personal [civil] liberties and national (or planet) security is always a tough issue. How much law enforcement intervention is the public willing to allow in the name of security? We saw what happened after 9/11; devout civil libertarians claimed the US government drastically overreacted. But what would happen if a catastrophe like one noted above occurs? And then there's the question of should we ever let it get to that point? Because if something like an EMP decimates most or all of the United States, the Patriot Act will look like a parking ticket.

Posted by Hube at March 5, 2013 07:55 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

Ultimately, if you are speaking of interstellar terms, the controlling factor is going to be what the travel time between star systems is. Instantaneous travel opens up the possibility of either close control or isolating a society (William Rostler and Harry Harrison have both played with that one). If you have medium speed travel (like Star Trek was supposed to be, but they usually ignored in practice for dramatic reasons), a looser confederation that allows a great deal of latitude is probably the best you can do.

As far as planet-bound humanity is concerned, I don't see anybody accepted AI control of any strategic weapons system for at least a century--but then I didn't predict drone warfare, either.

Posted by: Steve Newton at March 5, 2013 09:28 PM

In Niven's Man-Kzin Wars series, the initial conflicts took place at sub-light speeds. As noted, the ARM had secret societies at the interstellar colonies, especially Wunderland, the only human colony conquered by the Kzin.

Posted by: Hube at March 6, 2013 01:28 PM

Does this assume that either there is no God or that He does not "control" things as such?

I agree that speed of travel determines quite a bit. Perhaps we'll see the ships that just travel forever and seed worlds along the way. All I know is that right now, our concentration risk is way too high. One bad epidemic or meteor strike and TEOTWAWKI time.

Posted by: Duffy at March 7, 2013 03:18 PM

“With Folded Hands”

Search it at Wikipedia (link not allowed).

Posted by: ErisGuy at March 25, 2013 08:57 AM

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