23 January 2008

Robots, robots, everywhere

While hanging out at O'Hare on his way home for winter break, young David picked up a copy of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot with a picture of Will Smith on the cover. He figured he was buying the screenplay for the movie Smith starred in. But, no, it was the classic collection of Asimov short stories originally published in 1950. The stories had appeared in science fiction magazines in the decade prior to that, so some were over 65 years old. David had read them some time ago. The book just got a new cover for a 2004 paperback edition.

I hadn't read these stories, so I picked up this classic. This is, after all, where Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics first appeared. In addition, Robbie, the robot in the first story, was the inspiration for Robby of The Forbidden Planet and Robot B-9 of Lost in Space.

It took me a long time to get through this collection. I just wasn't in the mood for all the thinking that Asimov instigated.

The stories are amazing. Asimov was making predicitons about technology, politics, culture, and psychology. One of the characters who holds this collection together is robopsychologist Susan Calvin, born in 1982. Calvin dies at age 82, shortly after the last story ends. Her life span coincides with the successes of U.S. Robotics and Mechanical Men, the company that created "positronic brains," thinking machines, and robots.

Some of Asimov's predictions seem quaint now; others are on the mark. I guess I should have expected that with so much speculation in one place. The thinking machines and robots are huge constructs filled with vacuum tubes in Asimov's 21st century. He was writing in the shadow of Eniac. [Two programmers work on Eniac in the photo at right.]

Asimov's 21st century world was a global society, but it was politically organized into half a dozen economic-geographic regions, each with its own "thinking machine" to rationally organize its economic production and coordinate global trade. He did predict that the capital of the Tropic region would be a brand new city in central Nigeria, just about where Abuja, the purpose-built capital city is today.

Construction in Abuja, Nigeria

He also predicted the competition for resources between the developing and developed worlds even though he underestimated global population. But in Asimov's global economy, the thinking machines rationally organized things to resolve conflicts that arose from the competitons.

And in the end, the thinking machines injected little anomalies into the global production-trade system to make people more comfortable with the machines' dominance over human beings.

In the final story, a colleague says to Dr. Calvin, "But you are telling me, Susan, that... Mankind has lost its own say in its future."

She responds, "It never had any, really. It was always at the mercy of economic and sociological forces it did not understand... Now the machines understand them; and no one can stop them, since the Machines... [have] the greatest weapons at their disposal, the absolute control of our economy."

Ah, utopia.

Then, yesterday, the February edition of Seed Magazine arrived. The theme of the issue is Blue Brain. One of the main articles is Out of the Blue by Jonah Lehrer. It asks the question, "Can a thinking, remembering, decision-making, biologically accurate brain be built from a supercomputer?"

And in Wired Magazine's Danger Room (What's next in national security?), this headline appeared: "Israel Eyes Thinking Machines to Fight 'Doomsday' Missile Strikes." Noah Shachtman writes that "Israeli military leaders have begun early planning for a new, robotic defense system, armed with enough artificial intelligence that it 'could take over completely' from flesh-and-blood operators..."

The quest for Asimov's thinking machines goes on. To what ends?

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