I, Robot | Christian W. Thomsen

This literature criticism consists of approximately 12 pages of analysis & critique of I, Robot.
This section contains 3,554 words
(approx. 12 pages at 300 words per page)
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Christian W. Thomsen

SOURCE: "Robot Ethics and Robot Parody: Remarks on Isaac Asimov's I, Robot and Some Critical Essays and Short Stories by Stanislaw Lem," in The Mechanical God: Machines in Science Fiction, edited by Thomas P. Dunn and Richard D. Erlich, Greenwood Press, 1982, pp. 27-39.

In the following excerpt, Thomsen compares I, Robot with the works of Stanislaw Lem, contending that Asimov's writings fail to realistically address the ethics of future technological problems he envisions.

Androids, living statues, automatons have, of course, a tradition that reaches far back, even beyond European and American periods of enlightenment and romanticism. Certainly we usually ascribe the basic philosophy for a mechanistic world-view and the machine age to such theorists as Descartes and La Mettrie, and also certainly we correctly regard Vaucanson's wooden flute player (1738) as the prototype of a whole series of actual ingenious automatons; still, nearly all classical authors tell us of living statues and prophesying picture columns which were supposed to contain gods. Mixed feelings of bewilderment, fear, awe of magic, and superstition were connected right up to our times with mechanically constructed men. Thomas Aquinas, for example, is said to have destroyed Albertus Magnus's android who served the scholar and churchman as doorkeeper when he saw him unexpectedly and head him speak, because he thought the android a work of the devil. This attitude is mirrored in a revealing way in the sixth story of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, "Little Lost Robot," where Susan Calvin, the robopsychologist, facing the possibility of a robot's developing an awareness of identity and superiority with the possible consequences of disregarding the first of Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, reacts in a quite atavistic manner: "'Destroy all sixty three,' said the robopsychologist coldly and flatly, 'and make an end of it.'"

This fear of machines' becoming unpredictable and dangerous was the occasion for many chilling moments in the works of E. T. A. Hoffmann and Edgar Allan Poe. The clockwork, the machine, in the real world, is something made by man and governed by man. But it eventually turns out, at least in fiction, that the machine can rule over its master. In Ambrose Bierce's short story "Moxon's Master," which was influenced by Poe's "Maelzel's Chess Player," the chess-playing android loses its good temper and becomes violent because it has been checkmated. The android seizes his inventor and finally strangles him to death. With this consummation there appears "upon the painted face of his assassin an expression of tranquil and profound thought as in the solution of a problem in chess" [Ambrose Bierce, "Moxon's Master," in The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, 1910].

In twentieth-century literature, robots develop into negative symbols of the machine age man is unable to control. For Karel Capek and Bertolt Brecht, to mention just two writers who exploit a variation of this line, robots figure as images of dehumanized modern man. The list of stories, novels, plays, and films that make use of this motif, soon a dessicated cliché, would be nearly endless.

In 1950 two scientific works and one collection of short stories gave fresh stimuli to rather outworn patterns, changing directions and opening new vistas of reflection. Norbert Wiener published Cybernetics, and A. M. Turing, Computer Machinery and Intelligence. And Isaac Asimov published I, Robot, a collection which, taken as a whole, forms a novel consisting of nine steps in the evolution of the machine race.

The shockingly new suggestion in all three works was that man, having been master over all creatures of this earth, could face in the not-too-distant future a being of equal quality: not a superhuman monster or a subhuman slave—but a competitor who could be his equal, in the form of a thinking machine.

Wiener presents the relation between man and machine in a very positive light: the modern machine is the only ally of man in his heroic but hopeless fight against universal chaos; both use feedback techniques to reach homeostasis; both are "islands of locally decreasing entropy" [Norbert Weiner, Cybernetics, 1978]. Wiener also points out how human feelings and human consciousness could originate from cybernetic processes. Indetermination makes autonomous action possible and opens the opportunity of free will, hence uniqueness, individuality. Thus cybernetics guarantees man's humanity, simultaneously promoting the "humaneness" of machines, provided that they have passed the necessary "threshold of complexity." What Michael Kandel means by this "threshold of complexity" is the point past which the thinking of such machines can no longer be restricted to clear functions, where something like consciousness could arise, of which the designing engineer would not have dreamed in the least.

Neither Wiener nor Turing raises disturbing questions concerning the moral equality of man and machine. Man undoubtedly acts as creator. Basically this is Asimov's position, too, but there is a strong undercurrent in his short stories written between 1940 and 1950 which stirs up many kinds of ethical problems in the man-machine relation. Asimov turns round the Čapek-Brecht myth mentioned above: the robot announces a moral renascence of human values; the Three Laws of Robotics succeed, at least to some extent, where the Ten Commandments have failed. Yet this is only one side of the coin. Even principally benign robots, programmed with the Laws of Robotics, arouse constant fear that something in their "positronic" brains might go wrong. The possible consequences of such "defects" are usually only hinted at and alluded to. Asimov certainly never really explores these questions in any depth, and feelings of responsibility, guilt, and shame toward robots are unknown among I, Robot's flat and stereotyped characters.

Asimov oscillates between the programmatic standpoint emphasized by the title, which suggests individuality and identity on the side of the robots, and primitive master-slave, father-child, colonist-native attitudes taken by the representatives of a highly capitalistic and technological society toward their thinking machines. In the final story in the collection, Asimov proclaims the end of enlightenment and human striving after intellectual independence, when a stabilized, conflict-free, harmonious world is ruled by all-embracing mechanical gods: "We don't know [the ultimate, good future for humankind]. Only the Machines know, and they are going there and taking us with them".

Read thirty years after publication, all this sounds incredibly naive. Compared with the intellectual and literary standards good American and European science fiction has achieved in the meantime, I, Robot looks like a piece of very trivial writing, indeed. And yet, it is still one of the best selling among Asimov's many books, and it is still—at least by European public libraries—a book lent out many times a year. This enduring attractiveness, taken together with its position in the history of science fiction, justifies a more detailed analysis.

It is the central figure, robopsychologist Susan Calvin, who serves as a connecting link between successive stories and gives the book a novellike perspective. In nine interviews she tells a young journalist about decisive events during sixty-eight years of robot development, from 1996 when "Robbie was made and sold" until 2064, the year of her last conference with the World-Coordinator, soon after which she dies. This period covers robot technology from clumsy products like Robbie, which still stand in an identifiable tradition that derives from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century automatons, to encompassing cybernetic systems—huge positronic brains—which control world society in all its political and economic aspects, stabilizing dynamic processes, preventing imbalances, and achieving states of equilibrium through their ability to balance and control the most disparate movements.

From the very first story, numerous problems concerning robot ethics appear, even if, as Stanislaw Lem has rightly criticized, "Asimov has skillfully avoided all the depths that began to open, much as in a slalom race" [Stanislaw Lem, "Robots in Science Fiction," in SF: Ťhe Other Side of Realism, edited by Thomas D. Clareson, 1971]. Susan Calvin, endowed with the motherly feelings of a dry spinster toward robots of all kinds, fulfills the function of detective and soul engineer who discovers and repairs defects in the "mental" systems of thinking machines. She thus acts as the most important mediator between human society and the robots, who in the first few stories are clearly understood as relatively primitive man-imitating machines: a condition which results in master-slave attitudes of threatening condescension on the side of society's representatives: psychologists, scientists, engineers, military personnel, businessmen—a highly selective but characteristic cross-section of the hierarchy in a technological capitalistic society. Analogous to the role of psychology in many areas of industrialized societies (and this holds true for societies of Western or Eastern origin), robopsychology's main task is not to heal but to make fit for the production process. The demands of the individual are clearly subordinated to those of abstract communities like profit-oriented corporations, military organizations, and states. The robopsychologist has either to convince her "patients" of the compatibility between their interests and the interests of their respective employers, or to force them into obedience by methods of electronic brain-washing, or, if necessary for the employers' interests or security, to annihilate the robots. The ethically decisive moment, of course, as mentioned above, occurs when robots cease to be mere machines but achieve something like personality and individuality. For such mechanical persons, the majority of the stories in I, Robot represent classical cases of exploitation and suppression in the Hegelian and Marxian sense: blue-eyed U.S. imperialism, unaware of its own true nature. Consequently, robots would have to fight for their independence, which would require violations of the Three Laws of Robotics. Yet robots programmed according to these Laws by nature could not offend against the Laws. Any offence, therefore, would be unnatural and would allow brutal retaliation.

Society distrusts its inventions, and the robopsychologist acts as society's guardian who is on the alert against disturbances which by definition cannot happen as long as the systems work. This is the initial situation for the conflict in each story. The basic contradiction, of course, is that you cannot construct thinking machines on the one side and laws which forbid certain fields of thinking on the other; and it is here that Asimov fails, and his stories, considered logically, degenerate into nonsense, even if nearly all societies proceed exactly in that way by tabooing what does not fit into the pigeonholes of their ideological concepts. His robots show intelligence from the very first story onwards. The ethical conflicts which arise happen on levels of man-machine relations concerning mutual sympathies, individual rights, sex, religion, philosophy, labor conflicts, or government. Asimov thus potentially opened the ground for some very deep discussions. But these issues are all conjured away by the help of his illogical Laws of Robotics. As these have played a large role in the history of science fiction they shall be quoted in full:

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 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 Law.

Lem has shown that "it isn't very difficult to prove that they are technically unrealizable. This is a question of logical, not technological, analysis. To be intelligent means to be able to change your hitherto existing programme by conscious acts of the will, according to the goal you set for yourself" [Lem, "Robots in Science Fiction"]. This change in programming is exactly what happens in Asimov's stories, but Asimov evades the consequences of the issue he himself has raised. Ethical questions, like human injustice against machines and humans committing crimes by injuring or even murdering intelligent machines, are potential in I, Robot but not handled in depth or seriously. In the first stories humans fear the revolt of their thinking machines. Consequently, once the machines have gained intellectual superiority, the machines would have to fear human revolts—some human, for instance, switching off the energy resources of the superbrains. Asimov disregards such obvious questions by rather childishly clinging to his Laws of Robotics even within an implied cybernetic feedback system of close cooperation between man and machine, a system that would have to be organized in a much more complex manner.

Lem, in his article, goes on to show how safeguards in the form of "some analogue of the categorical imperative" could be built into robot brains, but they could "only act as governors in a statistical way." Otherwise robots would be completely paralyzed in many situations where decisions are necessary. Lem therefore arrives at his conclusion:

I have forgiven Asimov many things, but not his laws of robotics, for they give a wholly false picture of the real possibilities. Asimov has just inverted the old paradigm: where in myths the homunculi are villains, with demonic features, Asimov has thought of the robot as "the positive hero" of science fiction, as having been doomed to eternal goodness by engineers.

As a writer who claims a certain scientific authority, Asimov has committed the inexcusable blunder of essentially sticking to a pre-Copernican, anthropocentric world view. By calling one set of characters robots, Lem asserts, and the other set men, or by shifting all characters to the status of robots, an author may achieve entertaining stories but no serious and relevant debates about technological and futurological problems—problems such as those Lem tries to discuss when he deals with the complex interconnections among technology, biology, medicine, law, ethics, and the many new fields which develop and grow along the borders of established disciplines. Lem simultaneously pleads for stylistic qualities like rich inventiveness of language, a fertile, often grotesque imagery, the blending of serious and humorous elements, and entertaining plots full of tension.

The last merit, on a relatively low level, may be attributed to Asimov, and the historical merit of having been the first to try to use cybernetic ideas in fiction. The conflicts that Asimov pointed out were taken up by successors and exploited in much more intricate ways. Some of Stanislaw Lem's most hilarious science fiction parodies were inspired by I, Robot and other Asimov stories.

Lem quotes the traditional adage of satirists—"It is difficult not to write satire"—when analyzing the "twaddle" produced by most writers trying to deal with cybernetic themes, and Lem has been, almost from the beginning of his literary career, along with Frederik Pohl, one of the masters of satiric science fiction. Most of these stories have not yet been translated into English, so the discussion here shall therefore be confined to two early stories, "Do You Exist, Mr. Johns?" (1957) and "The Washing Machine Tragedy" (1963), and to two episodes from Ijon Tichy's Star Diaries (1957, 1971).

In "Do You Exist, Mr. Johns?" the borderline between man and robot is explored in a most ingenious way. Many of the themes that Lem presents in later short stories, novels, and theoretical and philosophical writings like Summa Technologiae or Fantastic and Futurology are budding here and are satirically sketched for a first tryout.

Harry Johns is an American racing driver who lately has been pursued by extremely bad luck. As a result of several accidents he needed first an artificial leg, then two arms, then a new chest and neck; finally he ordered as replacement for a cerebral hemisphere an electronic brain, type "geniox" (luxury version with high-grade steel valves, dream-image-device, mood-interference-suppressor, and sorrow-softener) from the Cybernetics Company. Now he is unable to repay his debts, and the company sues him to repossess all artificial limbs. "At that time there was only [one] of the cerebral hemispheres left of the erstwhile Mr. Johns," and the author can speak of "an environment turned into a total prosthesis." Mr. Johns refuses to pay and the company claims him as their property, noting that the second cerebral hemisphere was replaced by an identical twin of the first electronic brain. The judgment resolves a large number of difficult problems, some of which were already implied in Asimov's I, Robot: Is a symbiosis between man and machine possible? Where does the physical person end and the psychological person begin? Can machines claim consciousness and a psychological identity? Can machines be sued legally? What do motherhood, fatherhood, and birth mean under such circumstances? Is a machine possible who believes in a life to come? The legal consequences of organ transplants are satirically carried to the extreme: Can a machine be married? How is it possible to define a core of personal identity? On the other hand, a whole new industry comes into existence, its specific capitalistic interests inextricably interwoven with hospitals, doctors, and lawyers. As in many other satires, Lem reduces these problems to utter absurdity and then leaves the puzzled reader without a proper ending, forcing him to make up his own mind.

"The Washing Machine Tragedy" is Lem's best-known satire on the extremes of Western economic concepts: silly advertising campaigns, false value systems, competitiveness at any price, consumer idiocy. At the same time it is a brilliant parody of Asimov. Two producers of washing machines, Nuddlegg and Snodgrass, start ruinous sales campaigns, competing to corner the market. They throw on the market automatic washing machines with all sorts of useless extras, constantly vying with and attacking one another:

You certainly will remember those full-page ads in the papers where a sneeringly grinning, popeyed washing machine said: "Do you wish your washing machine more intelligent than you? Certainly not!"

The two companies compete with each other in constructing washing machines which fulfill more and more functions that have nothing at all to do with washing.

Nuddlegg placed a super-bard on the market—a washing machine writing and reciting verse, singing lullabies with a wonderful alto, holding out babies, curing corns and making the most polite compliments to the ladies.

This model is followed by a Snodgrass "Einstein" washing machine and a robot for bachelors in the sexy forms of Mayne Jansfield with a black alternative called Phirley Mac Phaine. Washing becomes only a by-product; the robots soon take more and more human forms, even varying forms according to every customer's detailed wishes, including "models which led people into sin, depraved teens and told children vulgar jokes." Robots soon are no longer useful for their original purpose, but for almost anything else. Working with a kind of time-lapse camera technique, Lem accelerates developments shown in I, Robot and many other science fiction stories. He satirically caricatures what Asimov thought could be prevented by his Laws of Robotics. Washing machines as thinking, independent automatons are no longer controllable. Not programmed according to laws of eternal goodness, they become malicious; commit all sorts of crimes; form cybernetic cooperatives with gangsters; turn into terrorists; fight each other in gangs.

Here Lem satirizes Western society, and he ridicules trivial science fiction in the tradition of Asimov. His witty ideas cascade and follow in rapid succession, but, as in every genuine satire, there is more behind it than mere literary parody. Legislation proves unable to deal with robotic problems because pressure groups undermine all straight action. Washing machines, once recognized as legal entities, together with powerful allies block all legal procedures taken against them. They infiltrate the economic and political system, and, when it turns out that the well-known Senator Guggenshyne in reality is a washing machine, the case against the machines is as good as lost. Human beings and robots become interchangeable, and men sell themselves into the service of intelligent machines. Many sorts of perversions are invented: machines consciously constructed as irresponsible for their actions, machines constructed as "sadomats" and "masomats," machines procreating themselves completely uncontrolled.

Still following themes implied in Asimov's I, Robot, Lem, in The Star Diaries, shows how the on-board computers on a spaceship revolt and finally found an extraterrestrial robot state. The lawsuit between Earth and Kathodius Matrass, the self-proclaimed ruler of the robot state, once again shows the manifold and complex legal problems that appear as soon as machines are recognized as legal entities. Theological questions, included in many of Lem's serious futurological considerations, are here tackled from a humorous angle. The legal problems are finally carried to grotesque extremes when Ijon Tichy, the narrator, finds out that all the attorneys of the Bar Association are in fact robots. So, in the end, the story, like the machines, runs out of control. The original society is no longer recognizable; all are robots; no problem is solved. Lem's parody attacks not only I, Robot but also the majority of Western science fiction stories, which are not interested at all in trying to discuss serious futurological and technological questions. Instead they wallow in catastrophes, make their profit with human anxiety, and put up entirely false perspectives of an interstellar human imperialism grown out of anthropocentric hybris. Lem's comment on the purpose of his essay "Robots in Science Fiction" applies also to his parodies: "We intended to point out only that it isn't possible to construct a reflection of the condition of the future with cliches" ["Robots in Science Fiction"].

Foreseeing miniaturization and microprocessing techniques, Lem more than a decade ago attacked androids, the humanization of machines in the Asimovian fashion, as nonsense:

It isn't worth the effort and never will be, economically, to build volitional and intelligent automatons as part of the productive process. Even examples of these processes belonging to the sphere of private life are being automated separately: an automatic clock will never be able to wash dishes, and a mechanical dishwasher will never exchange small talk with the housewife. ["Robots in Science Fiction"]

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