Isaac Asimov – Legacy and contributions

Hyperaxion Apr 12, 2020

Author of more than 500 works, including novels, short stories, essays and stories of science communication, he was one of the great names of the golden age of science fiction in the 1950s.

On January 2, 1920, the writer and biochemist Isaac Asimov was born in Petrovich, Russia. His works still win adaptations for TV and cinema. It is a vast bibliography consisting of 463 books and 46 edited works – a total of 509. In these pages, Asimov explored several fields of knowledge and ended up becoming widely known for his science fiction books, especially those that concerned robots.

It was in one of these stories that Asimov created the famous Laws of Robotics, which until today have been studied by engineers and lawmakers around the world. He is also famous for foreseeing and openly debating some of the most sensitive topics in our current technological society.

Isaac Asimov - Legacy and contributions

Asimov and robotics

Although the concept of autonomous machines already existed in the literature, through tales like The Sandman (1816), by E.T.A. Hoffmann, and The Spell and the Sorcerer (1899), by Ambrose Bierce, the term robot originates from the Czech word “robota”, which can be translated as “forced labor”. The idea that robots are a kind of slaves to mankind was widely addressed before Asimov – he took advantage of the concept himself, but he went far beyond that.

The word “robota” was used first to describe the automatons of a play by the Czech science fiction author Karel Capek (1890-1938). His 1920 work told a story about human-looking automata created by a brilliant scientist named Rossum. In an article written for the Oxford dictionary, Čapek explained that at first, he thought of calling his creatures labori (from the Latin labor) and that his brother Joseph, also a writer, proposed roboti, which turned out to be a more appropriate option.

Isaac Asimov in 1984 at the Mysterious Book Store in New York.

In Čapek’s play, robots escape from human control, develop feelings of their own and end up destroying the species that created them. This is basically the plot that inspired many science fiction stories at the time – until Asimov’s debut in literature.

In his work, Asimov preferred to abandon the traditional approach and go deeper into the theme. It is important to remember that, in addition to being a science fiction author, Asimov was a biochemist, writing science books that explain scientific concepts, including historical chronology, as well as works on astronomy and mathematics. Therefore, he always approached science in a less pessimistic – and certainly more realistic – way, considering all the pros and cons of the technological evolution to which humanity was heading.

He made his vision very clear when he wrote this in his introduction to The Caves of Steel (1954): “It became very common, in the 1920s and 1930s, to picture robots as dangerous devices that would invariably destroy their creators. The moral of these stories pointed out, repeatedly, that there are things that man should not know. However, even as a youngster, I could not believe that if knowledge presented danger, the solution would be ignorance”. In this quote, Asimov takes an optimistic stance towards science, even without turning a blind eye to the social problems that it can bring.

His works became unique compared to other fiction stories of the time because his robots gained new complexity, and the universe he created had the important nuances for a healthy discussion about the advancement of technology. In his first story about robots, Robbie (1940), we can see anti-robot groups protesting against the machines, and a child who cannot overcome the loss of his caregiver robot. The reader is faced with two sides of the same coin – the robot caring for the child and the reality of workers who lose their jobs.

In one of his most emblematic books, “I, Robot”, Asimov presents us with a world in which humans and robots live together in society, exploring possible relationships that could arise from there, as well as the development of “feelings” in the machines created by humans. The film starring Will Smith is based on the book.

It is in this story that the author introduces the famous three laws of robotics. Even though they come from a fiction book, they are great directives for robots if our science can develop them in a similar way to Asimov’s books.

The three laws are:

  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 Laws.

Later Asimov added “Law Zero” above all others:

0. A robot may not injure humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

Alexey Dodsworth, a Brazilian science fiction author, says that the first law should receive greater attention, given that some virtual robots today can induce humans to make mistakes, even promoting mass lynching on social networks. He also states that the laws MUST be followed, at the risk of humanity being destroyed otherwise. “The blame will not be on the robots, since we program them without the ethical imperatives proposed by the writer,” says Dodsworth.

Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov. (Credit: Musing Studio).

Another renowned work of fiction by Asimov is the Foundation Trilogy, which will even receive an adaptation on Apple’s streaming service. Subsequently, it became the Foundation Series, consisting of a total of seven books. The series tells, with a wealth of details, the influences that scientific knowledge can have in a society of galactic proportions. A concept presented in the work is that of psychohistory, a term coined by the author himself, which uses mathematical methodologies and social sciences to predict the future of societies.

There are also a series of stories that have positronic robots as their central theme – a concept created by himself; they are robots with brains that have artificial intelligence, consisting of platinum-iridium, whose circuits produce and eliminate positrons, a particle recently discovered at the time when the author created his first stories.

Initially, the short stories were not conceived as a series, but all the stories have the theme of interaction between humans, robots, and morality. For this reason, although there is a handful of inconsistencies between the short stories and the novels, this whole work ended up being considered as part of a single universe. Many of these short stories are of great importance, such as The Bicentennial Man, which received the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for best science fiction novel of 1976 and won a film adaptation starring Robin Williams.

In the field of nonfiction, one of Asimov’s books was the Chronology of Sciences and Discoveries, a compilation of discoveries made by humanity, dating from prehistory to the year 1988. The book has 791 pages, and among the discoveries listed are the control of fire by early humans, the invention of the microscope and the discovery of DNA.

Asimov’s predictions

It is interesting to note that, even though psychohistory is a fictitious concept, Asimov himself was able to make “predictions” far beyond his time for human societies, which we still see coming true today. These predictions were made in interviews, first in 1964 for The New York Times, and then in 1983, for the Toronto Star.

Among these predictions, he talked about the existence of devices we use on a daily basis, but nonexistent at the time: microwave ovens, flat-screen TVs and the Internet itself, for example. Another correct prediction was distance education, even if not in the same proportions that Asimov imagined.

The most important thing in the statement about the internet and distance education is not the prediction of the technology itself, but the possibilities it brings to improve people’s lives. When interviewer Bill Moyers questions whether machines could “dehumanize learning”, the writer offers, once again, his view – that the internet, in fact, would be beneficial because it offers a direct relationship between the student and the source of the information. This reflection served to help to shape society when this technology appeared.

Many of Asimov’s contributions to the present day came from books of fiction. This can be a great example of how art can be a means of transmitting knowledge, and it is not far from scientific knowledge: quite the contrary, his books were deeply based on the scientific discoveries and predictions that existed at the time.

We can talk a lot about how the works of Asimov, and other authors, can influence the way we deal with our reality and how we imagine the future. This is one of Asimov’s main legacies – we learned from him to anticipate not only the problems that technology can bring us, but also its potential benefits. Thus, we can prepare society to deal with both sides of the coin. After all, this responsibility is ours and ours alone.


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