Review of “The Complete Robot” by Isaac Asimov

I’ve decided to read a bunch of Asimov books (I’ve only read Caves of Steel until now). The general consensus was that I should start with this book, which is a collection of short stories dealing with robots.

Some of the stories (particularly the Bicentennial Man) are much better than others. They are interesting to read together though.

With respect to robots, Asimov sets up his own ethical system – the three laws of robotics, which are:

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 the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

At first, this seems like about the most objective, clear cut and straightforward ethical system that one could hope for. But, through all the stories, you begin to see that nothing in ethics is quite so simple.

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7 Responses to Review of “The Complete Robot” by Isaac Asimov

  1. James_G says:

    >At first, this seems like about the most objective, clear cut and straightforward ethical system that one could hope for. But, through all the stories, you begin to see that nothing in ethics is quite so simple.

    And this is why kids should be fed sci-fi for breakfast.

    Understanding the importance of meta-ethics, friendly AI and the singularity is easy when your brain has been nourished by Asimov and Philip K Dick (“Autofac”, “Second Variety”).

    Similarly, the red pill of anti-universal-suffrage-democracy is easy to swallow after snacking on Heinlein.

    As for space opera, the seditious inclinations of any number of English children must have hypertrophied due to their supping on Blakes 7 rather than Star Trek.

    • Nyk says:

      SF is a great medium to spread heretical ideas (HBD, gene therapy for intelligence enhancement) undercover: “District 9” and “Return of the Planet of the Apes” come to mind.

      • Zimriel says:

        Did you also catch how the African scientist’s eyes lit up, when he was told there was gene therapy for IQ?

        Oh, he was an HBD-er. By God, he believed in it more deeply than did any of the white characters in that movie.

  2. Nyk says:

    One thought which crossed my mind recently. It seems that the rampant dysgenism in our society is reflected in people’s ever more baser preferences. Even remotely complex video games and SF is not produced anymore.

    Next to none of the great SF classics by Heinlein, Asimov, or A.C. Clarke are being made into movies these days. You have the “Space Odyssey” movie from 1968, but as you get nearer to the present day, there seems to be less and less interest for SF ( especially Hard SF – as opposed to science fantasy: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MohsScaleOfScienceFictionHardness ).

    Even “Stargate Universe”, the only SF TV show I can recall in which the aliens are not simply humans with bumpy foreheads (even though they are still vaguely humanoid, unfortunately), was canceled.

    Meanwhile, we get pure fantasy like the new JJ Abrams show “Revolution”, in which electricity somehow magically disappears (but humans are still alive and kicking – Maxwell be damned)

    • James_G says:

      I dunno about that TV Tropes article. It lists The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress in the hard sci-fi category, and I must disagree.

      *SPOILERS*

      Firstly, the idea of a giant computer that isn’t supposed to be an AI spontaneously becoming self-aware for no reason is ludicrous. Secondly, the idea that such an arbitrary mind would be friendly to human values is also ludicrous.

      Thirdly, Mike the computer evinces an extreme misunderstanding of probability theory at one point in the book (which I presume is Heinlein’s mistake, because it doesn’t make sense in the story). Basically, Mike thinks there’s a 1 in 7 chance (or something) that the revolution on Luna will succeed. Then when an expected crisis point is reached, Mike reevaluates the probability to be far lower, like 1 in 1000.

      His explanation is simply: “this is a difficult stage in the operation”. But since he obviously knew about the difficult stage in advance, it should already have been accounted for in his original probability!

      Science aside, the behaviour of the characters is also ridiculous. Couldn’t Earth have guessed that the space catapult might be used as a deadly weapon? And that it wasn’t a good idea to put the Loonies in a position whence they had a remote chance of gaining control of Luna?

      As for the Loonies – assholes. They let a woman flirt with a stranger, knowing full well that if he even touched her he risked getting lynched without trial. If anyone deserves punishment, it’d be the woman. And given that women were so precious on Luna, why would they even allow them to flirt? Also, given that they have the luxury of flirting and whatnot, why would the nobler races inevitably breed with negroes just because they were on the moon?

      And then there’s the scene where the Loony women dance naked in front of the unaccompanied male guards from Earth, “taunting” them. Then one of them gets raped, and the reader’s supposed to feel outraged. What did they expect? And another insufferable moment is when the Loonie mob kills some guards because one of the guards smacked a cheeky kid. Surely any competent authority would have exerted swift and merciless reprisals – given that the whole freakin’ moon was at stake in this rebellion.

      What about Mike the computer, which runs all of Luna’s systems – how could only one man know how it works? Isn’t that kind of an obvious security loophole?

      Finally, the Earth authorities are so light-touch that I don’t see what good reason the handful of Loonies even had for launching their revolution – let alone a freakin’ full-blown inter-planetary nuclear war in which the lives of billions of people are placed in the hands of a superintelligence with unknown and unreliable values.

      It’s just fiction, but I can’t think of any other (allegedly realistic) sci-fi novel that contains so many huge failures of logic, or whose protagonists are so gratuitously unsympathetic.

      Y’know I was actually hoping that right near the end, when it seems like Mike the computer might actually be evil and is nuking Earth’s cities, that would turn out to be true. It would have made it a much better book.

  3. James_G says:

    Even remotely complex video games and SF is not produced anymore.

    Well, Silent Hill is more complex than Pac-Man. Surely video games haven’t been around long enough in a stable form for any meaningful comparison.

    Considering shows like The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, I’d say that these are very naive on a scientific level. Generally, any alleged science is merely fantasy clothed in the literary genre of science. The aliens are often men in rubber suits. The Monty Python sci-fi sketch is a pretty good take-off of this kind of show.

    Nowadays if anything I’d say the science and technology tends to be a little more accurate, albeit not always.

    In any case, most good sci-fi isn’t really about science per se, but foremost (like any good fiction) it’s about people, their perceptions and how they might behave in unusual circumstances, and secondly it encourages people to step outside their banal existence and learn to think about big and unusual problems and ideas. The gritty details of quantum physics or chemistry are rarely the important thing.

    Next to none of the great SF classics by Heinlein, Asimov, or A.C. Clarke are being made into movies these days.

    A Scanner Darkly was a very faithful and rather good recent adaptation of PKD.

    In general it’s not the science and technology, but the human element that has declined in popular entertainment. The Twilight Zone might contain a lot of schlock science, but I don’t get the impression that modern family shows offer anything as well-written and meaningful as “Time Enough at Last” or “A Stop at Willoughby”. (Admittedly I don’t really watch television).

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