This is a collection of short stories and essays related to Asimov’s visions of robots in the future. It contains quite a few stories from a better-known anthology I, Robot. Actually the latter has only 5 entries not found in the former.
Before Asimov practically every story related to an artificially created life (or its semblance) starting all the way from myth of Ancient Greece ended up with the creation turning against its creators – robots turning against humanity for our particular case. Hollywood still milk these stories for what it is worth (Terminator franchise, anybody?)
Asimov decided it would be a good idea to create safeguards in robots against such case. Thus The Three Laws of Robotics were born. To make a long story short these are included on the most fundamental level of an artificial brain and prevent a robot from doing a harm to a human in any form. Sufficient to say they were taken seriously by contemporary artificial intelligence researchers – in real life that is.
What is so exciting about 100% obedient robots that warrants a fairly big story collection? It is quite possible to have a situation when the three fundamental laws conflict among themselves and Asimov was quite good at coming up with such situations. How does cold logic cope with a seemingly unsolvable paradox? Read the anthology. The stories take place during different times between the appearance of first robots (according to them we should already have more advanced forms of them by now) to humanity settling in deep space. Some characters appear in several stories.
Asimov is considered to be one of the major classics of science fiction and these stories are part of the reason. Please do not get me wrong, they are good. The criticism that follows resulted in my rating being 3.5 stars as opposed to 5.
The biggest reason for my (slight) disappointment is that the stories and essays aged. Let me explain. Since the time serious research related to computer science began a lot of effort was put into work on artificial intelligence (AI). Around 60 years later there were practically no results to show for it. AI practically became modern equivalent of snake oil.
It is so bad that recently Microsoft trying to show something connected a database to voice system and proudly called the outcome breakthrough in AI. For people unfamiliar with the terms: it is nothing of the sort. So fear not, Skynet is not coming anytime soon. For this reason The Three Laws are not as relevant for modern life.
What is interesting is that Asimov often uses robots and machines (meaning computers) interchangeably. Here I have to admit that when it comes to computing we achieved more than Asimov envisioned. In one story he described a robot which essentially performed what we now call spell-checking. It only took a robot around 20 minutes for a book. Any decent modern word processing program can do it in seconds. As another example in the distant future machines designed higher-level machines that in turn designed even higher-level machines: ten times total. In the end the level of sophistication was completely incomprehensible to humans. These days we can design equally sophisticated computers ourselves and the design can still be comprehensible – at least to specialists.
What did we achieve with such powerful hardware? We managed to create slower and slower software so regarding the user experience in performance the old program on an ancient PC build at the time when dinosaurs rules the Earth
is the same as a modern program on a modern PC/tablet/smartphone. In fact I am continued to be amazed by the tricks people come up with - always and without failing - to make programs even slower: I am saying this as a person who works in IT industry.
This brings me to a question about what do we have to show for developing such powerful computers? I am not really sure. Do grown up guys going off a high cliff playing Pokémon Go count?
Now that I put it this way, we – humans – are pathetic.
Coming back to Robot Visions my advice would be to read it in small doses as the stories can become somewhat repetitive. Blah blah The Three Laws blah blah Susan Calvin will fix the problem blah blah… This would be the plot of the vast majority of them.
Considering all I said (“ranted about” would be a better term) the final rating is 3.5 stars as I mentioned before. I am still willing to sign any form that states that the anthology is a classic of science fiction.