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The Rational, The Reasonable, and the Robots

As Kevin Drum says, Chris Suellentrop's remarks on Isaac Asimov's robots don't really do justice to the way he developed the theme over the course of all his work. Still, I think it's fair to say that "humans bad, robots good" is a pretty accurate summary of the theme of I, Robot. Where Suellentrop really goes off the mark is in suggesting that the robots are good because they're rational. That there is a kind of Kantian reverie where rationality leads to goodness or, as Rawls would put it, we can derive the reasonable from the rational. Asimov, however, hews pretty closely to a purely instrumental account of rationality -- pure reason could be good, evil, or otherwise, all depending on what it serves. The point about the robots isn't that they're good because they're rational, they're good because they're rational and they all feature factory-installed morality. The Three Laws of Robots and, especially, the First Law saying that no robot may harm a human, are what's doing all the moral heavy lifting. Rationality only comes into play because it ensures that robots will execute the First Law's dictates properly.

It's interesting to note, though, that in the later novels Daneel begins to elaborate a more sophisticated moral vision. This involves moving from a deontological framework with heavy reliance on the doing/allowing distinction to a much more consequentialist worldview. The books in question are, in my humble opinion, far far far worse than the earlier ones, but I think they express a superior moral philosophy. Meanwhile, as John Holbo eloquently illustrates if smart people spent less time thinking about this crap and more time focusing on important things, we might get a lot done.

July 18, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

Well, sure.

But on the other hand it might also be a dumbass robot movie starring Will Smith.

Posted by: The Eradicator! | Jul 18, 2004 1:39:52 AM

But I think it's important to note that their morality is installed by us, and they are things we make. They are a social experiment in moral principles. The more and more we can make robots like us, the more we can be like robots.

Posted by: William S | Jul 18, 2004 7:22:45 AM

At least that's the idea, I guess...

Posted by: William S | Jul 18, 2004 7:27:06 AM

I'm always glad to restore a sense of sober proportion - a core of purposive pith, if you will - to any given debate.

Posted by: jholbo | Jul 18, 2004 8:39:36 AM

I just read the I, Robot novellas and it strikes me that many of the robots aren't very rational at all. In fact, much of the book is about what happens when the laws of robotics (robotic morality) cause rationality to break down.
-There's the robot who walks around in circles mouthing gibberish as it slowly corrodes to death.
-There's the command and control robot that orders its underlings into ridiculous calistenics whenever faced with a difficult decision.
-There's the first super smart robot that thinks its the prophet of the generator god.
-And let's not forget the ultra genius cum prankster big brain.

I found it refreshing that not only were Asimov's robots benign (for the most part), they were anything but cold and raional. They cried, got afraid, embarassed, jealous, and one even develops a dangerous case of megalomania.
The one thing that dissapointed me is that, Asimov never explores the moral implications of Robots having emotions. In one of the stories, the human protagonist essentilly kills a robot even as it sits there wailing for mercy.
In the stories, labor unions and ludites crusade against the robots, but noone crusades for robots' rights. That can't be right. I mean we have a society for the ethical treatment of animals. I find it hard to believe that we wouldn't have a society for the ethical treatment of creatures that can perform complex calculus and cry.

Posted by: WillieStyle | Jul 18, 2004 10:21:56 AM

...if smart people spent less time thinking about this crap and more time focusing on important things, we might get a lot done.

I suspect there are people who would use the same words to complain about philosophy, Matthew.

Posted by: Daryl McCullough | Jul 18, 2004 11:44:14 AM

I find it amazing that some 40-50 years after they were mostly written the mainstream suddenly takes notice of these stories - and promptly tries to put more into them than any normal lay person would.

They are works of fiction people. Science fiction. Back when they were written most sci-fi works were of your basic pulp variety. Shoot-em-up space westerns and Cold War doomsday scenarios. When a robot actually appeared in one, they usually were these dark mechanical things.

Asimov was the first auhor to actually attempt to portray what and how robotics could potentially evolve. The issues of interaction between humans and machines... of ownership/slavery versus conception... of humanity vesus artifical intelligence.

Most importantly, it was all done from a standpoint of the 1950s sci-fi and the Cold War. Never forget that.

To speak of robots with feelings, personalities or rationality? Well, you have waaay waaay too much time on your hands. Oh, and as for the Will Smith movie? All I can expect is that it will be an update - for nobody could have the suspension of disbelief needed if one were to do "I, Robot" in the context that Asimov did.

Posted by: Dave | Jul 18, 2004 12:09:37 PM

Linked, with comments and disagreement, here. Glad to know that you feel Jim Henley and Timothy Burke and Holbo and the Nielsen Haydens, and myself, and all of the thousands of writers, editors, artists, and so on, who have worked on creating or publishing thoughtful science fiction as their life choices -- not to mention the readers so inspired -- which is to say, the majority of people I know -- have wasted their lives on "crap."

Posted by: Gary Farber | Jul 18, 2004 2:56:22 PM

WillieStyle:

PEOPLE who can do complex calculus, and cry are bleeding heart pointy headed ivory tower intellectual types. We don't respect them, why would we form societies for the protection of their chrome plated dopplegangers?

Posted by: epistemology | Jul 18, 2004 5:26:15 PM

>>they're good because they're rational and they all feature factory-installed morality.

What can I say other than "I completely agree."

Posted by: lucia | Jul 18, 2004 5:33:38 PM

PEOPLE who can do complex calculus, and cry are bleeding heart pointy headed ivory tower intellectual types. We don't respect them, why would we form societies for the protection of their chrome plated dopplegangers?

Well, I respect me.
And if the oppurtunity ever arose, I'd respect my chrome-plated doppleganger as well.
So there!

Posted by: WillieStyle | Jul 18, 2004 7:10:19 PM

"have wasted their lives on "crap." ...Farber

Man, I am getting fucking tired of people not seeing MY's irony. IRONY. Fuck, Farber, Holbo spends his fucking life deeply studying popular fiction....did you really think MY was insulting him so profoundly?

"Meanwhile, as John Holbo eloquently illustrates if smart people spent less time thinking about this crap"

and the link was to hundreds of words of Holbo taking continuity issues in comic books very seriously
....
"Back when they were written most sci-fi works were of your basic pulp variety. Shoot-em-up space westerns and Cold War doomsday scenarios" ...Dave

Bullshit. Farber would have been more useful here, attacking this idea that SF was all adolescent power fantasy before Ellison and Delaney. Heinlein, Sturgeon, Kuttner, after Campbell took over Astounding in 1939 started what people who know the field call "The Golden Age". Some say the real "Golden Age" was in the early fifties, roughly the time Asimov wrote the two Robot novels. And Asimov was among the worst working in the period.

L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, wrote a novella called "Typewriter in the Sky" in the early 40's, in which a pulp SF writer falls into his own fiction. A "Meta" work of dynamic self-reference, much like "Adaptation".

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 18, 2004 9:32:54 PM

Farber didn't realize that MY cosiders all time not spent sorting his comic book collection to be wasted time.

Posted by: Levi | Jul 18, 2004 9:49:15 PM

"The books in question are, in my humble opinion, far far far worse than the earlier ones, but I think they express a superior moral philosophy"

Man, Gary, I went to Amygdala but you got comments top secret or something. What is it about that second paragraph that you did not bother to read. Matt reads Dostoevsky, the weird irrational near-surrealistic "Notes from the Underground".

When MY makes the critical judgements in the second paragraph, which I agree with, it is utterly obvious that he is judging SF on its own criteria as a literature of ideas, in addition to the criteria of general literature. How you could possibly read this post and think MY believes SF and poplit are really "crap" is beyond me.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 18, 2004 9:54:22 PM

Asimov was a wonderfully exuberant man. Bradbury may be for the ages (I never cared for his stuff), but Asimov was definitely for the masses. He told great stories and threw out ideas like Fourth of July firecrackers. His explanations were wonderful and simple and his concepts were subtly profound. He wrote 400 books, thousands of articles and short stories, all on a manual typewriter, edited magazines, attended conventions and gave numerous lectures. He was J.K Rowling, Carl Sagan and Steven den Beste rolled into one. Famous science fiction authors are still extending his Foundation universe as a tribute to his work. I believe he did a lot of good with his writing.

I am not looking forward to seeing this movie. I can't imagine it will do him justice.

Posted by: jj | Jul 19, 2004 1:46:36 AM

WillieStyle is describing the "I, Robot" that I remember. Asimov's robots are not so much rational as they are systems that follow quasi-physical laws, and, furthermore, ones that interact to produce bizarre failure modes that make for interesting stories. They're sympathetic in that these failure modes are subtler than the robot-as-monster schema of many previous robot stories. But it's still the case that these robots frequently do silly things for reasons dictated by the Three Laws.

Later writers, particularly John Sladek, liked to lampoon the Three Laws and indicate how unworkable they would be in the real world. But I think that Asimov's own writing indicates that he more or less realized that.

Posted by: Matt McIrvin | Jul 19, 2004 9:44:04 AM

"this idea that SF was all adolescent power fantasy before Ellison and Delaney."

Delany.

Refutation: R. A. Lafferty, Philip Jose Farber, Jack Vance, Frederik Pohl, Alfred Bester, Walter R. Miller, Daniel Keyes, Clifford Simak, James Blish, Brian Aldiss, Edgar Pangborn, Fritz Leiber, John Brunner, "Cordwainer Smith," Keith Roberts, Algis Budrys, Damon Knight, Robert Sheckley, Avram Davidson....

"Man, Gary, I went to Amygdala but you got comments top secret or something."

Bob, to "register" (to comment at Amygdala) is to "enter a name." As I say on the sidebar, this takes a few seconds. That's it.

"When MY makes the critical judgements in the second paragraph, which I agree with, it is utterly obvious that he is judging SF on its own criteria...."

It seems to me that Matt is there talking on his favorite home ground, philosophy, and that's all. I might, of course, be entirely wrong.

Was Matt being all ironic by saying "if smart people spent less time thinking about this crap and more time focusing on important things, we might get a lot done," as at least two people have here suggested? If so, obviously I owe him an apology. I will gladly give it if Matt will take two seconds to state that's what he was doing. It seems to me I've seen Matt make similarly dismissive remarks in the past about the waste of time, and low intellectual value, involved in science fiction and comics, but perhaps I'm all wrong in my memory and/or interpretations then. Matt?

Posted by: Gary Farber | Jul 19, 2004 11:58:59 AM

"that in the later novels Daneel begins"
"far far worse than the earlier ones"

Plurals here imply that MY has read 5 Asimov Robot books, which is 2 more than I have read.
Now it may have been for a college class, but if not, it indicates a greater than average (population as a whole) affection and respect for science fiction.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 19, 2004 1:19:37 PM

"Plurals here imply that MY has read 5 Asimov Robot books, which is 2 more than I have read."

It might be relevant to note, Bob, that when you read Asimov, he was a cult figure read only by a comparatively tiny readership -- his early novels were issued in hardcover in print runs of 5,000 or so -- and even through, say, 1965, the number of people in the U.S. reading sf was still measurable in six figures, and typically vastly less for any given book.

When MY read Asimov, Asimov's books were NY Times Best Sellers, issued in runs of six figures, and, also, a significant portion of the traditional sf readership -- such as yourself -- had given up reading him; his new readership was the true mass market, very loosely speaking.

As for Matt's opinion for, and respect for, sf, fantasy, and comics and the like (gaming?) and how much attention he feels they are worthy of from "smart people," versus being "crap," all he has to do to clarify is say something.

It's not as if this is the first time this has come up. "...who seems to know way too much about comic books for an allegedly-serious person...."

Matthew seems to use this "irony" rather repetitively.

Posted by: Gary Farber | Jul 20, 2004 2:05:16 AM

What I would be really interested in is seeing how the next James Bond film treats the world's disillusionment with British intelligence. Admittedly, the estimate that Iraq had really dangerous WMD's was not really a conclusion of the career officers who staffed British intel (from what I can gather), but rather was the fault of political higher ups who wanted to tweak the intelligence into saying something. Still, I suspect the next film (if it hopes to retain a worldwide audience) will somehow distance itself from the hawks' misuse of the intelligence services in the UK and USA. Maybe Bond will go after drug dealers or corporate polluters or will somehow become estranged (though not permanently) from his employer.

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