Monday, July 27, 2009

The Simple Brilliance of Isaac Asimov

“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.” – The First Law of Robotics by Isaac Asimov

Yesterday, I was reading the interesting New York Times article, “Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man,” by John Markoff, about the advancement of artificial intelligence in robots, computers, and machines, and the implications this might have on human society, and I started thinking about one of the masters of science fiction, Isaac Asimov, whose stories predicted such a dilemma.

His Robot series of short stories and novels delved into the moral issues that would be faced when man-made machines achieved the potential to think, reason, and make choices. He created the Three Laws of Robotics, an effort to combat the dangers of self-aware automatons who might become smarter and, in some ways, superior, to their human makers. His tales explored the evolution of those laws, the loopholes in them, and the progression of robots to near-human development, leading to thought-provoking questions like “What makes us human?” and “Can advanced artificial creations be considered life and have a soul?”

Isaac Asimov’s stories still hold up today. His earlier prose sometimes might seem simplistic, but it was full of brilliant ideas. He was a prolific writer and editor whose fiction still holds up today as engaging, entertaining joys to read.

I’m surprised that more of his stories haven’t been adapted for live-action film. Fantastic Voyage is probably the most popular movie based on his ideas, (in which scientists are miniaturized and injected into a human body’s blood stream), but there are so many other great tales that I would love to see made into movies or television shows.

Nightfall is considered by many to be one of the best science fiction yarns ever told, about a planet in perpetual daylight that only sees night-time once in a millennia, so when rare darkness occurs the people of the planet engage in ritualistic panic, leading to chaos and self-destruction. The superstitious mayhem causes a cyclical pattern of ruined civilizations and rebirth of primitive cultures when the light comes again.

His “Ultimate Computer” short stories showed the gradual development of a deity-like machine through the ages. Each tale was one step further in the progression.

Asimov had multiple speculative fiction series and he managed to tie them all together in one combined universe. His Robot series is probably my favorite, and the I, Robot movie starring Will Smith, while a decent motion picture, sadly was very different from Asimov’s original tales and didn’t do them justice. (And let’s not talk about the Robin Williams version of Bicentennial Man.) His Empire saga is a galaxy-sweeping space opera. His Foundation books are an amazing classic that Roland Emmerich is threatening to bring to life on the silver screen – we’ll see if they get it right.

As I mentioned, Asimov managed to take his initial stand-alone series and brilliantly merge them into a shared universe, building an incredible continuity that took each of those series to a whole new level. With Prelude to Foundation and other books that filled in the gaps of the millennia-spanning saga, Asimov set the standard for how “prequels” should be done, adding rich ideas to his stories rather than just haphazardly filling in the blanks of his saga – George Lucas and others could learn a thing or two from the legacy of Isaac Asimov.

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