I’ve been watching the Channel 4 sci-fi series Humans, and aside from the whole kitchen sink drama/conspiracy thriller side of things, one of the matters which took me greatly by surprise is how well they’re doing the whole existential, philosophical side of things.
And when I heard one of the synths mention that their ‘Asimov lock’ prevents them from doing harm to humans, well, that was just a brilliant touch in honour of the sci-fi writer who helped bring the whole discussion to light.
Born in Soviet Russia somewhere around 1920, Isaac Asimov was one of the world’s best-known and most prolific science fiction writers, known to have had a hand in writing some 500 novels. Asimov was also a PhD-qualified biochemist, and a professor at the Boston University School of Medicine – though he was said to have taken a low-key role in order to focus on his writing.
Truly a brilliant mind, Asimov was also a member of Mensa International, and he wrote many non-fiction titles alongside his staggering collection of novels, including many academic texts in wildly varying areas of science. He was something of a Shakespeare expert too.
Asimov was among the pioneers of the science fiction genre as we know it today, writing many extremely popular works about space travel, galactic diplomacy struggles and, as mentioned, the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence. Across many of his works, Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics come into play:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
These rules are absolutely an essential part of sci-fi canon these days, as the morality and ethics of artificial intelligence continue not only to form part of stories like Humans, but are starting to vest themselves in the artificial intelligence we continue to create. When you first heard about Siri, were you not a little…unsettled…about its development like I was?
I recently read Asimov’s very first novel, Pebble in the Sky, and became engrossed in the story of an Earth empire which has spread so far and wide across the galaxy, and become so sophisticated, that they’d assumed a snobby attitude towards their lowly ancestors and those who remained on our planet. It’s a great mix of diplomatic, chess-like strategies and all-out violence written in a style that, while somewhat dated, has all the greater impact on its story for it.
For his brilliant, inquisitive mind as well as the huge body of work that spans decades and has influenced so much of today’s science fiction (here I’d make a joke about it being the Foundation but it’s awful and I’m now annoyed at myself for thinking of it), Isaac Asimov is very much a hero of geek culture.