Isaac Asimov

If I were not an atheist, I would believe in a God who would choose to save people on the basis of the totality of their lives and not the pattern of their words. I think he would prefer an honest and righteous atheist to a TV preacher whose every word is God, God, God, and whose every deed is foul, foul, foul. -- Isaac Asimov

Properly read, the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived. -- Isaac Asimov

What I will be remembered for are the Foundation Trilogy and the Three Laws of Robotics. What I want to be remembered for is no one book, or no dozen books. Any single thing I have written can be paralleled or even surpassed by something someone else has done. However, my total corpus for quantity, quality and variety can be duplicated by no one else. That is what I want to be remembered for. -- Isaac Asimov

Asimov was born in 1920 near Smolensk in Russia. His family migrated to the US when he was three years old and he grew up in Brooklyn, NY. His encounters with science-fiction magazines led him to follow the dual careers of writing and science. He entered Columbia University at the age of fifteen and at eighteen sold his first story to Amazing Stories.

Against his father's wishes, who wished him to study medicine, Asimov studied chemistry at Columbia University. There followed a brief spell in the Army in the immediate aftermath of World War II, after which Asimov gained a PhD at Columbia. He taught biochemistry at the Boston University School of Medicine. His first science-fiction novel, Pebble in the Sky, was published in 1950, and his first science book, a biochemistry text written with two colleagues in 1953.

The demand of his writing career proved too great and Asimov turned to writing full time in 1958, whilst still retaining a link with the University. A prolific writer, Asimov has authored some 500 books for young and adult readers, extending beyond science and science fiction to include mystery stories, humour, history, and several volumes on the Bible and Shakespeare. Among his best-known science-fiction works are I, Robot (1950); The Foundation Trilogy (1951Ė53), to which he wrote a sequel 30 years later, Foundationís Edge (1982); The Naked Sun (1957); The Gods Themselves (1972). Among his major science books are the Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology (1964, rev 1982) and Asimovís New Guide to Science (1984), a recent revision of his widely acclaimed Intelligent Manís Guide to Science (1960). Later works include Foundation and Earth (1986); Prelude to Foundation (1988); and Forward the Foundation (1992). A two-volume autobiography, In Memory Yet Green, was published in 1979.

Asimov, along with Arther C Clarke, Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein, was writing in what is now seen as the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

Among his best-known science fiction is I, Robot (1950), part of the Robot series, and the classic Foundation Trilogy (1951-3), part of the Foundation series. These two great series were to later merge in Robot and Empire.

Karel Capek introduced the concept of the robot, but it was Isaac Asimov who introduced robots and robotics into popular culture with his Robot series of novels. The robots of Asimov have positronic brains and could 'think'. Asimov explored a similar theme to Karel Capek, the conflict between men and robots. The greatest contribution by Asimov was the Three Laws of Robotics.

Handbook of Robotics, 56th edition, 2058 AD:

  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 the Second Law.

Asimov was to later introduce a Zeroth Law of Robotics, which held precedence over the first three.

The Zeroth Law was not hardwired in the positronic brain, rather was an understanding advanced robots reached. The First Three Laws, were not written rules robots had to obey, but mathematical constructs that went to the very core of existence of their positronic brains.

Gaia, a collective planetary intelligence, adapts a law similar to the First Law

In the 1990s, Roger MacBride Allen, with Asimov's blessing, wrote a trilogy based on a modification of the Three Laws, now called the New Laws. He also introduced a Fourth Law where the robots could do as they pleased, provided it did not conflict with the first three laws.

Gregory Benford, Greg Bear and David Brin wrote sequels to the Foundation series, Foundation's Fear, Foundation and Chaos and Foundation's Triumph, in which various robot factions exist. So many factions exist that is has been compared as something akin to Monty Python's Life of Brian, with its "Judean People's Front", "Popular Front of Judea", "Judean Popular People's Front" and so on. One faction develops a Minus One Law of Robotics in recognition that there exists sentient entities other than humans.

In Espresso Tales (2005) by Alexander McCall Smith, the sequel to 44 Scotland Street (2005), a philosophical discussion takes place on the First Law, although it is never explicitly referred to.

The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence believes the Three Laws to be unsafe, too simplistic, and has established a website, 3 Laws Unsafe, to explore these issues.

It is also thought that the Three Laws are unethical because they violate the robotsí free-wills. It is thought that rather than content-based restrictions on free-will, robots need mental structures that will guide them towards the self-invention of good, ethical behaviors. Somewhat akin to God giving Man free-will within an ethical framework. But, looking at the outcome, it does not bode well for the future of either robots or mankind, assuming of course mankind with its propensity for self-destruction makes it that far into the future.

Discussion of the Three Laws, of Man's interaction with robots, themes explored by Isaac Asimov and Karel Capek may seem academic, at best left to the pages of science fiction writers, but they are not. At some time in the not-too-distance future, we will have created artificial intelligence more powerful than ourselves, not simple computing machines as we have at present. What then?

Would a corporation today implement the Three Laws? Corporations are greed driven, it is why they exist. On the one hand they have never given a damn to the harm they cause to either individuals or wider society, on the other hand societal fear of manic robots running amok does little to help sales figures.

I, Robot, has been turned into a film, but apart from a reference to the Three Laws of Robotics and featuring three of the main characters, it bears no resemblance to the book of the same title by Asimov, a collection of short stories.

Asimov won the Hugo Award four times and the Nebula Award once.

The popular cultural influences of Asimov were far reaching, Star Trek and Star Wars to name but two. The Matrix series, whilst not dealing with robots per se, does explore the man-machine interface.

Isaac Asimov was a Humanist and a rationalist. He did not oppose genuine religious conviction in others but vocally opposed superstitious or unfounded beliefs. He was willing to tell jokes involving God, Satan, the Garden of Eden and other religious topics, expressing the view that a good joke can do more to provoke thought than hours of philosophical discussion. He believed that the Bible represented Hebrew mythology in the same way that the Iliad recorded Greek mythology.

His belief that Hell is "the drooling dream of a sadist" crudely affixed to an all-merciful God. If even infallible human governments were willing to curtail cruel and unusual punishments, wondered Asimov, why would punishment in the afterlife not be restricted to a limited term? Asimov rejected the idea that a human belief or action could merit infinite punishment. If an afterlife of just deserts existed, he claimed, the longest and most severe punishment would be reserved for those who "slandered God by inventing Hell".

Asimov was a leading member of the Baker Street Irregulars, a Sherlock Holmes society. From 1985 until his death in 1992, he was president of the American Humanist Association.

He died in 1992, aged 72. It only emerged many years later that he had died of AIDS.

Petrovichi in Russia, where Asimov was born in 1920, has a memorial stone to honour their native son.


Literature ~ Karel Capek
(c) Keith Parkins 2006 -- July 2006 rev 0