July 08, 2013

Asimov's robots as a metaphor for understanding human nature

Who knew? I've written about this -- sort of -- in passing before, but an author who was allowed to "play" in sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov's Foundation/Robot/Empire Universe has expounded upon the theme to a much larger degree. But first, a quick synopsis:

In Asimov's interconnected stories and novels, humans developed positronic robots in the early 21st century. (The film I, Robot pretty much highlights this, and Star Trek: TNG's Data's positronic brain was a big hat tip to Asimov.) As more and more robots took over the work of humans, resentment against the mechanical men grew widespread. On Earth, robots became delegated to doing work well away from humans (usually outside of the huge, domed underground cities -- see The Caves of Steel) while the first wave of interstellar travelers, the so-called "Spacers," made optimum use of them.

Over the course of a few thousand years, the Spacers ended up settling some fifty new worlds, and their societies became heavily dependent upon robot labor. Back on Earth, robots remained despised. Spacer society came to despise the home planet as backward, and Earthlings as even "sub-human." Ironically, it took two of the most advanced Spacer robots ever created to drastically alter this dynamic. For, the Spacer worlds' societies were slowly dying out: Their dependence on robots for just about every aspect of their lives was destroying basic human initiative. Indeed, the typical Spacer had innumerable robots to tend to every conceivable chore: cooking, waiting meals ... even dressing and bathing their masters!

These two robots -- R. Daneel Olivaw and R. Giskard Reventlov (the "R" standing for "Robot") -- devised a plan by which to circumvent the embargo placed upon Earth by the Spacer planets: the "Zeroth Law" of Robotics. This law supercedes the legendary Three Laws of Robotics created by Asimov, and which were deeply embedded into each and every robot ever created. (Well, not exactly every one, but that's a post for another time ...) This law permitted robots to consider the greater good of humanity over that of individual human beings. Olivaw and Reventlov concluded that, if the status quo were allowed to continue, humanity would eventually perish as the Spacer worlds dissolved, and Earth continued its one-planet stagnation. What was needed, they argued, was for Earth to generate a second wave of interstellar settlement -- one without robots. And, one that would depend solely on human drive and initiative.

And this plan was put into effect. But it came at the cost of Earth. After all, as humans always do, people needed an incentive to leave their planet. A mad Spacer had devised a means to eradicate the hated Earthers, and even though the robot Reventlov had discovered the plot, he allowed it to proceed. That "Zeroth Law," after all. This plan would make Earth's crust permanently radioactive, a poision which would only continue to increase, slowly killing out Earth's teeming billions. Except that, with the aid of Daneel and Giskard, Earth's second wave of settlement -- the "Settlers" -- would vacate the planet and spread forth into the Milky Way.

And this they did. Over the course of some twenty thousand years, the Settlers established a Galactic Empire and eventually the Foundation, as depicted in Asimov's Empire and Foundation books. And all without robots. (Except one notable one, of course, as noted here.) Because the fifty Spacer worlds showed what would happen if humans were dependent.

Author Roger MacBride Allen, in his Caliban, probably described in the most intricate detail the effect robot slave labor would have on human society. Allen is the aforementioned author allowed to "play" in Asimov's universe, and his first novel takes place as those "second wave" Settlers are busily spreading through the stars, while the Spacers continue to just hang out on their fifty worlds. One of the Spacer planets, Inferno, is facing ecological ruin, and its inhabitants have to swallow their pride and call in Settler expertise and assistance to literally save their world. The planet's society eventually becomes an uneasy hybrid of Settler and Spacer cultures, with the Settlers constantly attempting to demonstrate that robots are a detriment to human development.

And no person in the novel does that better than Dr. Fredda Leving. Allen uses an academic presentation by her -- to a group of Settlers and Spacers both -- to show just how robots have disintegrated virtually all human drive and initiative. As Caliban's Wiki entry states, "It is her thesis that the superabundance of robotic labor has caused humans to become indolent and nearly incompetent at accomplishing even trivial tasks." Allen does a good job at illustrating this at a personal level, too: though there is a Spacer protest group interrupting Leving's speech and which eventually leads to a riot, these Spacers are shocked at the pain inflicted upon them by rival Settlers during the scuffle ... even the most trivial of injuries are barely withstood by the Spacers -- because they have been completely coddled all their lives by their robot servants.

Does this sound familiar in contemporary society? I believe so. "Progressives" have been successful in cultivating a similar culture of dependency among some of the poorest of our society. No one I know seriously argues that this segment of the population is "well off" or even "very comfortable" like the Spacers in Asimov's books; however, the problem is that too often they are "comfortable enough." They are given (yes, given) just enough have all their needs provided -- food, shelter, and even communication and transportation -- so that the incentive to "go beyond," if you will, decreases or evaporates altogether. And then the so-called "cycle of dependency" slowly becomes entrenched. There's no more "What can I do to better my situation;" instead, it's merely "What can you do for me?" Gone is even the most remote sense of shame about getting any sort of governmental/state assistance; now it's "I'm entitled to it." And people (especially politicians) who attempt to limit such aid, or who may ask for something like, say, means testing, let alone cut off aid, are derided as the devil incarnate. "How dare you?" "Don't you have a heart??" "You're so callous!!" And it's not just individuals. Corporate welfare has a similar effect. With politicians of all stripes in their back pocket(s), and guaranteed markets and/or prices for their products (every wonder why milk and sugar, for example, are so damn expensive?) businesses lose their motivations too.

Human incentive may be the most misunderstood (purposely or otherwise) aspect of our nature, especially by "progressive" academic theorists. Communism, for example, posited that the New Man would be "altruist in spirit, communal in outlook, sacrificial in his labour for the common good." But as economist Bryan Caplan notes,

The classic argument against socialism is that it gives people bad incentives. What’s the point of working, conserving, saving, quality control, and/or taking out the garbage if they don’t pay? The classic socialist reply is that capitalism creates the selfishness it purports to benevolently channel. Socialism will give birth to a “New Socialist Man” who loves his neighbor as himself....

I’ve always considered the New Socialist Man position to be not just weak, but absurd. Ever heard of Darwin? People are selfish because of billions of years of evolution, not capitalism. End of story...

I take hindsight bias seriously. Many mistakes really are hard to see until you actually make them. But socialism wasn’t one of them.

Indeed. Asimov's and Allen's tales are only [science] fiction, but they rightly understand human nature. One of the more guffaw-inducing lack of such understanding occurs in a different sci-fi universe, Star Trek: The Next Generation. Does anyone recall Capt. Picard's lecture to the rescued 20th century capitalist in the episode "The Neutral Zone"? "We're no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things," he tells him. 24th century humans may no longer be obsessed with such, but you can bet your bottom dollar they'll still be important to them. But even more absurd is the notion that, with things like replicators and holodecks available to anyone, that folks in their right mind would freely volunteer for an organization like Starfleet and put their lives in jeopardy against races like the Klingons and Romulans. Face it, the vast majority of humanity would gladly hang out all day inside their holodecks and only come out to eat the food and drink the beverages provided by their replicators. "End of story," as economist Caplan said above.

Alas, as with anything else, the only way we'll change is when a tragedy or emergency hits us. With communism it was the lack of freedom, the grinding poverty, the secret police, and the millions killed. In Asimov's Robot societies it was ecological and planetary decay. With our own society it will be the crushing debt and economic collapse. Would that we rectify the situation before it's too late.

Posted by Hube at July 8, 2013 11:54 AM | 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.)

Good point, Hube, about the entitlement stuff. It reminded me of that idiotic Democratic Party commercial from a couple of years ago where Paul Ryan pushed the seniors off the cliff.

Posted by: Carl at July 8, 2013 01:47 PM

And I'm definitely no stranger to being called "heartless" for saying that we need to cut entitlement programs, that's for sure!

Posted by: Carl at July 8, 2013 01:54 PM

Sorry for the triple post, but yeah, I remember that ridiculous conversation from "The Neutral Zone." And I've also wondered why people just didn't escape into the holodeck instead of risking life and limb fighting the Klingons and Romulans and Cardassians.

And damn autocorrect... it accidentally added a y at the end of my name for some reason. Didn't catch it until it was posted.

Posted by: Carl at July 8, 2013 04:54 PM

I'll fix your name, Carl.

Yeah, TNG is a big ignorer of human nature. I mean, c'mon -- spend all day, every day, in the holodeck living out my ultimate fantasies, or risk my life against devious aliens? Hmmm ... so hard to decide ...

Posted by: Hube at July 8, 2013 04:59 PM

Definitely the holodeck for me. I wouldn't mind occasional space travel, but I would rather stay safe inside the holodeck living out my dreams.

Posted by: Carl at July 9, 2013 02:20 PM

Biggest use for holodeck? Porn.

Posted by: Hube at July 9, 2013 04:29 PM

As counterpoint to the "Zeroth Law" you should read Jack Williamson's great novella With Folded Hands.

Posted by: Dave Schuler at July 11, 2013 06:40 PM

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