I, Asimov

Isaac Asimov was born in Russia on this day in 1920. Or so he decided: the family emigrated to America when Asimov was three, and with no birth records available and no wish to return to Russia to look for them, the author selected January 2 as a likely date.

For many of Asimov’s fans and biographers, his uncertain birthday seems appropriate, given the time-traveling prescience of his work. Over his fifty-year career Asimov published prolifically: counting the books he edited and introduced with those he wrote, some 500 titles, over each of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System. But I, Robot (1950), his very first story collection, is arguably his most famous, based on its articulation of Asimov’s highly influential and human-friendly Three Laws of Robotics:

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 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 Law.

In the opening paragraphs of Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right From Wrong (2008), Colin Allen and Wendell Wallach cite Asimov’s Three Laws as the goal of the modern robotics industry — a goal we all must hope is reached, given the Asimovian Age we face:

In the Affective Computing Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scientists are designing computers that can read human emotions. Financial institutions have implemented worldwide computer networks that evaluate and approve or reject millions of transactions every minute. Roboticists in Japan, Europe and the United States are developing service robots to care for the elderly and disabled. Japanese scientists are also working to make androids appear indistinguishable from humans. The government of South Korea has announced its goal to put a robot in every home by the year 2020. It is also developing weapons-carrying robots in conjunction with Samsung to help guard its border with North Korea. Meanwhile, human activity is being facilitated, monitored, and analyzed by computer chips in every conceivable device, from automobiles to garbage cans, and by software “bots” in every conceivable virtual environment, from web surfing to online shopping. The data collected by these (ro)bots…is being used for commercial, governmental, and medical purposes.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.