Thursday, April 27, 2006

Robots And Empire

the three laws of robotics:
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.

in “robots and empire”, part 4 of asimov’s “the robot novels”, the two main robots involved – daneel and giskard – anticipate a confrontation with a tricky dilemma: a cusp may be reached where they may have to harm or even kill two human beings – amadiro and mandamus – who are planning to slowly destroy the planet earth. but how can daneel and giskard carry out their actions when the first law of robotics prevents them from doing so? a robot will freeze and/or cease to function when it attempts to break any of the three laws.

one might argue that killing amadiro and mandamus – the two antagonists in the story – would actually be prescribing to the first law as the robots would, theoretically speaking, not let their inaction be the cause of the death of billions of people on earth. however, daneel and giskard cannot act on this premise as humanity, represented by the billions of people is an abstract term. robots have as their priority to protect the non-abstract individuals in their vicinity.

daneel, due in most part to his previous dealings and encounters with the now decades dead earth legend, elijah baley, and after much careful analysis came up with his own philosophical interpretation of the three laws, and in so doing, developed a way to circumvent the dilemma he and his fellow robot, giskard, are about to get themselves into.

daneel proposes that a “zeroth law” can be extrapolated from the three laws and he states it as thus: a robot may not injure humanity or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

since this law has not been programmed into the positronic pathways of robots and was only brought into consideration by daneel himself, it should not come as a surprise that his friend, giskard, cannot act, without freezing, upon this zeroth law. so the two robots come into an agreement that when they finally meet up with amadiro and mandamus, the responsibility would fall on daneel to stop the two evildoers from executing their devious plans of destroying earth.

what i like about this book is how asimov expresses the importance of humanity as a whole over a single individual; how one person is just an infinitesimal part of the entire tapestry that is life. each person eventually dies one day. but what of that? life will go on without so much as a blip. the problem with us humans is we think the world revolves around us; that others were born to serve us; that tears would flow like a river upon our deaths – these and tons of similar balderdash.

it takes an atheist like isaac asimov to point out to us, nitwits, that it’s not the individual’s importance and prestige that matters but the lasting contributions one has engraved in life’s eternal embroidery.

rating: 5 of 5 stars * * * * *
makes you want to collect and read all the robot novels.

1 comment:

rob said...

Interesting story. I liked the fact that the heroes are the robots. I was thinking, the robots could also stop the two human beings by letting a third party, a hired human assasin carry out the killing. Or even eliminate the two bad guys through an indirect way such as poisoning or framing them, etc. But I'm sure Asimov accounted for this in the novel and explains why this wouldn't be possible.

Regarding the importance of humanity as a whole over the individual, I remember reading, not sure if it was from a Dalai Lama book or something, something similar to Asimov's philosophy. That suffering and even death is a part of life. And most of our unhappiness is the refusal to accept this fact. The irony is it is the grandiose belief of self importance that also drives the desire to give a lasting contribution to mankind. So we can leave our "legacy" or so we think.