Watch Out, it is a Robot


Human civilization has all too much experience, some good and some less so, with getting “someone else” to do the work that needs doing instead of us. Since attempts to enslave human beings have been proven to be ineffective and only applicable on the short term, various ideas began to develop in regards to the construction of alternatives – “artificial slaves”.

At a first glance, this idea looks pretty good, and not even immoral: the machine is, at the end of the day, only a machine. It has no heart, it has no feelings and emotions, it was not created in the image of God, but in the image of man. However, tomorrow morning we might wake up to discover that even artificial slaves might rise up against their makers and demand their freedom. When and if that happens it is better not to be around. Alternatively, perhaps, it is better to do everything possible to avoid this situation, not to mention this war.

At first, robots were common in the pages of science fiction books. That is where we learned to become familiar with their advantages: the Robot does not require air to breathe, is not bothered by the heat, or the cold, is not bored, never grows tired or falls ill, is never hungry or thirsty, does not take a holiday leave, and certainly not a maternity leave, and is never called up to perform his duties in this or that community or national or military service.

In short, any industrialist would eagerly award his robot worker, if only he could get his hands on one, with the employee of the month award. However, such a multipurpose robot capable of performing all tasks a human is capable of but without fatigue or boredom, does not yet exist. The challenge to constructing such a robot is not merely a technical- engineering one. Before this vision can be fulfilled, it is first of all necessary to deal with the all too human anxieties deriving from the early robot myths. Legends and horror stories. Somewhere, in the moral- social- cultural code of every man and woman the fiery letters “remember what was done to you by Frankenstein’s creation”, that humanoid seeming creature created from the body parts of multiple corpses in the renowned book of the 19th century British Author Mary Shelly; and the “Golem of Prague”, that creature which was built as a sort of a giant “doll”. According to Jewish legend, the 16th century Rabbi Yehuda Liva breathed the “Spirit of Life” into this golem and transformed it into a servant who was dedicated to, among other purposes, frightening enemies of the Jewish Community of Prague away. The creators of both of these creatures, Frankenstein’s creature and the Golem of Prague, eventually lost control of their creation. Indeed, their creations eventually turned against them. That is the greatest obstacle which humanity faces when it contemplates the desirability of creating an army of mechanical automat servants, regardless of how useful and beneficial to our lives their technical skills might be.


One remedy, which may enable us to, someday in the future, overcome this anxiety, is the creation of the Jewish science fiction author Isaac Asimov. Many mistakenly see science fiction authors as a type as modern day “prophets” who invent or foresee new technological and scientific developments in various fields, and thereby pull science after their visions, and up the ladder of scientific- technological “evolution”. In fact, the opposite is usually true- the science fiction author runs into information regarding certain scientific research that is not widely known to the public at large, and which had remained stuck in the “scientist court”.

The authors, who are armed with imagination and creativity, take this new scientific information and play with it in their minds, trying to “walk a few steps ahead with it”, and see where it might end up, and what social, economic, political, and psychological changes might follow its introduction into human society.

Isaac Asimov was a true prodigy in regards to anything having to do with these thought “simulations”. He was able to create entire worlds, each of them with its own culture, history, beliefs and fictional conflicts, all on the base of scientific advances to which he had been exposed. His ability to present before us various possibilities regarding the future, and show us where we might end up arriving should we choose this or that road into the future, have gained him a statue which might be described as the “strategic planning prophet of mankind”. In a certain sense, he not only showed us images of many possible alternate futures, but also taught us how to think about the future, how to simultaneously see many possible alternate realities. This accomplishment enables us to choose between them and, then, to backtrack our steps all the way to the present – and perform that choice which would direct us at the future reality that we had chosen.

Isaac Asimov was born in 1920 to a Jewish family in Petrovichi in the Smolensk Oblast, near the modern border between Belarus and Russia. When he was only three years old, in 1923, the family immigrated to the United States of America and settled in Brooklyn, New York, where he lived his entire life until his death in 1992. In his childhood, he used to split his time between school and helping his parents in their candy and newspaper stand.

At the age of 17, he was exposed to a science fiction magazine, in his parents’ store, and began writing futuristic stories, which immediately won great popularity. John Campbell, the editor of the mythological journal Astounding Stories, supported him and encouraged him to continue writing. However, like any other scion of an upwards struggling Jewish family, Asimov was sent out to acquire an education and a degree that would ensure he have “a real profession, something you can make a living from”. Therefore, it was that, at the age of 19. He received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the University of Columbia. At the age of 28, in 1948, the year the State of Israel was established, he received his PhD. He joined, as a biochemist, the scientific staff of the University of Boston, but simultaneously continued writing books and stories that swept away science fiction fans, and particularly the teenagers amongst them, with endless ideas and exciting possibilities about the future, and the ways in which it was possible to think about it and shape it. His massive activity in this field – the strategic planning of the human future – did not make him many supporters in the mainstream, organized, scientific world, and he was only granted tenure in 1979. He was also the Vice President of the “Mensa” organization for individuals with a measurable IQ of over 140.

In 1942 he married Gertrude Blugerman, had two children with her, and in 1973 divorced her and married Janet Jefferson. He saw himself as a humanist, and as a citizen of all of humanity. As such, he was severely troubled by the possibility that humanity, which, as is well known, does not always act wisely might destroy itself through struggles between different nations on this planet, or through irresponsible and boundless expansion in the galaxy, or through a conflict with the very machines we create, and which will rise up against us to destroy us, like Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein’s creature or the Golem of Prague.

Each of these concerns led him to compose a long series of books that detailed the future, or rather many possible futures, in which he mapped out a route – sometimes a rather twisting and elusive route- which, should we follow it, would enable us to survive and even progress in the future.

Asimov borrowed and analyzed, from the very beginning, the question of the most appropriate shape and design for a robot. There is seemingly no reason that a robot should be bound to a humanoid form. A robot intended to labor on ship maintenance underwater might be shaped like an octopus, or like a barrel from which various tools are drawn as required. A robot intended to work in the foundries manufacturing various metal instruments, near the furnaces, might be built like a type of six-wheeled carriage with only one arm. And yet, the advantage in matching this design of these robots to the tasks for which they are intended comes at a price which is greater than this benefit: these robots would only be able to perform that specific task for which they had been designed. That would force us to build, maintain, upgrade and operate hundreds of different models of machines, each with its own unique parts. Such a great and complex task would be logistically complex, so complex that it would throw the efficiency, and perhaps even the desirability, of the entire “robotics enterprise” into question.

Over quite a few years, science and technology marched precisely in the direction Asimov scorned, of designing and constructing purpose dedicated robots. Such, for example, are industrial robots that weld metal parts in the auto industry, and which paint, load and perform other tasks that require durability in harsh working conditions (high temperatures, poisonous gases in air, and so forth). These robots look like metal arms of various sizes, or else carts programmed to move within a specific manufacturing area do not scare us, since they do not pretend to be similar to man. They do their job modestly, without trying to imitate us.

We are even prepared to put up with dedicated robots that will float in space, construct and maintain space stations, or else with mechanical underwater robots that explore the ocean floor and it’s biosphere without needing to take a breath of air, or tantalize the appetite of the sharks.

In other words, we are prepared to enjoy the good services of robots so long as they do not don a shape that reminds us of the structure of the human body, and so long as they operate far away, from where we live. Robotic engineers call these machines “Telebots”, and they imbue them with the ability to overcome malfunctions on their own and to make decisions. Potentially, a telebot should be able to perform whatever a man does. However, in practice, should the telebot run into a problem for which his body is unsuited, it will be completely helpless. It will require the assistance of another telebot. However, if it is floating in space, or is standing by a furnace in a foundry, or is deep beneath the waves on the ocean floor, then the chances are that another, better suited robot will not be able to reach him in time and provide him with assistance.

Asimov, who as aforementioned, knew how to “game out” future scenarios in his mind, saw these disadvantages in advance, and sought out ways to avoid them. That is how he reached the conclusion that the most efficient universal robot would be a human form machine. Such a robot who is most probably (in fact, is most certainly) not the epitome of perfection in engineering terms, has one great advantage which is, Justas in the previous case, identical to its disadvantage: it is human like in form and versatility of function. Such a robot could use various tools intended for human use, would fit human workspaces, and will not require the design and manufacture of dedicated “Robotic tools”. The problem is that such a human form robot reminds us of Frankenstein’s creature and the Golem of Prague. In other words, it frightens us. We will tend not to trust it, and will do our best to avoid using it. Furthermore: we will impose various technological and other limitations on it that will prevent it from utilizing the full extent of its capabilities in our service.

To overcome this drawback, Asimov formulated three laws that we will have to imprint into any future robotic system:

  • The first law of robotics: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • The second law of robotics: A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • The third law of robotics: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

All of Asimov’s classic Robot stories (And there are several hundred of them!) revolve in fact around attempts – which never end well – to find a loophole in this system of laws, that will enable robots to break the limitations on their behavior and act against human beings.

Although he was never able to break his own laws of robotics, Asimov reached a short time before his death, the conclusion that in order to enable robots and people to live together, an additional law, the zeroth law of robotics must be added, and prioritized even above the first law. This law states as follows: “A robot may not harm humanity, or through inaction allow humanity to come to harm.” Accordingly, the first law was changed as follows: “A robot may not harm a human, or through inaction allow a human to come to harm, unless this interferes with the zeroth law”- and so on as regards the second and third law. In other words, a properly programmed robot may well know better than we do what is better for us. On the other hand, a robot lacking the “Asimov circuits” and therefore unconstrained by the three (four) laws of robotics might well, in the hands of terrorists or other criminals, “innocently” wreak havoc, death and destructions.

Either way, by 2050 it now seems increasingly likely that universal human form robots will be seen on the streets together with human beings. It is quite likely that some variation on Asimov’s laws will be integrated into the irrevocable core programming of these robots. These human shaped robots will be able to safely hold and serve a cup of tea, prepare an omelet, fix our plumbing, escort a child to school or kindergarten, wash our laundry, clean our streets and perform endless other tasks we would all dearly love to remove from our “to do” list.

In 1992, Asimov passed away in Brooklyn, New York, where he had grown up and lived for most of his life. The cause of death was acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), caused by the HIV virus. He was infected by a blood transfusion he received when he was undergoing a heart operation. This fact only became known 10 years after his death.

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