Friday, May 5, 2017

Classic Sci-Fi- I, Robot

For the last Classic Sci-Fi Meetup, we discussed I, Robot (1950) by Isaac Asimov.

One of the most classic works we've read in a while, I, Robot is a fix-up novel stitching together nine of Asimov's robot-focused short stories, with a fairly flimsy frame story of a journalist interviewing robopsychologist Susan Calvin about the development of robotic technology over the decades. It's most famous for introducing the 3 Laws of Robotics.

Easily the most well-attended Classic Sci-Fi meeting I've been to! Brief dsicussion notes below.

  • A lot of folks who'd read other Asimov agreed that I, Robot is more interesting considered alongside his other work, like the Foundation or later Robot novels.
  • Discussion of these stories as essentially thought puzzles—we thought Little Lost Robot the strongest of these—and talked about Asimov's work as a myster writer. Compared to puzzle-stories of Elliot Hoyt or Agatha Christie.
  • Noted that "these are Campbell stories", and wondered how much Campbell as an editor shaped the final form of these stories, particularly as it regards the treatment of Susan.
  • You know what, let's just go ahead and upgrade this to a Problem of Susan (see also). Weird to me that Calvin is always right, kind of the protagonist, and doesn't suffer fools, yet is still kind of this misogynistic image—constantly dismissed, allowed in the "men's world" only by being cold and basically sexless. We all thought that the makeup scene in the mindreader-robot story is a low point.
  • Talked about influence of early magazine SF & proto-SF on the shape of this work.
  • Some discussion of the writing style here, which is a weird intersection of both really quite bad and not unenjoyable. Particularly noted the cardboardiness of character, and clunkiness of exposition.
  • The collection was also, quite accurately I thought, described as having "no rough edges"—not as praise, there's just nothing very exciting or catching here.
  • The Laws! They can't possibly work, although we are laughing even as we point that out. I am wondering how to square the "hardness" of Asimov's science with how much the laws won't work on fairly straightforward logical/linguistic levels (e.g. how to define "human" or "harm").
  • We give Asimov an easy pass on technological things he got wrong—tube-based computers, for instance—but it's more interesting the way this is so clearly not a novel written with the benefit of modern cognitive science.
  • Question about whether all (or most) of Asimov's works fit into a consistent overall universe.
  • A lot of discussion about the ending and the move towards benevolent machine overlords. We wondered about earlier examples of AI-run societies, especially positive ones—Cordwainer Smith, maybe, or Forster's The Machine Stops?
  • Noted that the ending could be seen as moving towards an Iain M. Banks Culture scenario. Also, is totally possible to imagine a Matrix/I, Robot crossover—just put the humans in pods to keep them from harm!
  • In talking about whether or not the robots are slaves, and some of the interesting hierarchy-obsessed passages here, compared this to the AIs in Kim Stanley Robinson's work, particularly the problem of "the servile will" in 2312.
  • While we're tossing modern writers around, also mentioned Peter Watts' Blindsight for its much more modern investigation into intelligences and consciousness.
  • (Would suggest checking out the partial "interesting AI science fiction list" on a Chicago Philosophy write-up from a while back).
  • Long detour into discussion of intelligence/consciousness, some programming questions, emergent complexity vs. fully-designed, symbolic vs. training.
  • Noted that, thought of as artificial minds, these are pretty bad robots (ability to understand complex speech much harder than actually speaking, etc.), but they make more sense considered as going through stages of human infant development.
  • The religious satire of "reason", and wondering what Descartes/Anselm encounter left a mark on Asimov.
  • How sad/dated it is that "incredibly powerful labor unions" are a valid plot device here.
  • The uncanny valley and Polar Express.
  • Threat of AI job-displacement.
  • P-zombies, Turing Tests, Chinese Rooms, and Trolley Problems.
  • Does our scary friend Cordyceps count as a tool-user?
  • Star Trek: TNG's Data and his positronic brain; other Asimov influences on Trek.
  • Roombas & Siri.
  • Tension of wondering how racist the novel was going to get in points.
  • Racial erasure in Firefly.
  • Some discussion of the film adaptation of I, Robot, problems vs. redeeming feature (mostly the former).
  • I trot out my mini-thesis on the problems of the film—as flipping Asimov's script: instead of logic as the root of morality, emotion as the root of trustworthiness. Referred to my Kirk/Spock, Bush/Kerry discussion I presented at Wiscon a few years back.
  • That one robot cop show (Almos Human), Black Mirror, how creepy (or not) Boston Dynamics' creations are, Eye in the Sky, robot bees.
  • "Alien Nation did it better," a statement which is frequently true.
  • US Robotics & Mechanical Men compared to Bell Labs.
For June, we're reading Stations of the Tide by Michael Swanwick, and July's pick is David Gerrold's The Man Who Folded Himself. You can keep up with Classic Sci-Fi on their Meetup page.

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