20 May 2021

Lessons from Science Fiction

Isaac Asimov's short stories explore complex questions around the capacity for humanity within technology - questions that are even more pertinent today than they were when I, Robot was published in 1950. PR Assistant Grace Dunne asks what his perspective can tell us, at a time when the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of technology in so many fields.

When my book club suggested reading I, Robot by Isaac Asimov as our next read, I was skeptical of how much I would enjoy it given my usual aversion to science fiction! To my surprise, it was an eye-opening and enjoyable read. Although published in 1950, the book contains similar themes to the present day, mirroring our caution towards new technology and concern when technology threatens to perform past our control. Reading this novel in a time of global change, my thoughts on technology and the humanity that it can possess have transformed and inspired me to feel a renewed optimism for the future.

When writing this book Asimov set the tone for future science fiction novels by creating robots that maintained an ethical foundation that had not been seen before. Asimov created robots that had to operate within the 'Laws of Robotics' which maintained that they were not to harm humans and, throughout the novel, characters remarked on how they were the ideal citizen. One of the final short stories, 'Evidence', was based around the rumours that a political candidate was, in fact, a robot and how the roboticists could go about proving that he wasn't the human that he claimed to be. This incident led the main character, Dr Susan Calvin, to comment that she wished the rumours were true because the factual intelligence of the robots combined with their moral foundation made them into leaders that humans could never be.

Fast forward to 2021, it seems that most of the majority are far from holding this view. We are bombarded with articles about new technology that will attack our privacy and the restrictions that regulators should put in place to monitor how technology can work, because our innate human reaction is to treat tech as untrustworthy. I, too, am suspicious of the level of information that technology holds of us and whenever voice activated speakers interrupt my conversation without warning, I am reminded of this unease!

Similar to the mass media, Asimov points to the pitfalls that can appear from new technology. One example of this happens in the short story entitled 'Escape!' in which two scientists are sent into space by a robot with no way of returning themselves and momentarily die due to this robot's action. Since the robot knew that the humans would come back to life, he had not broken the Law of Robots but had adopted a dark sense of humour that viewed these actions as acceptable. Without the moral compass of most humans, the robot failed to keep the humans away from a danger that they would have preferred to avoid.

As a human population, our reasoning behind restricting the use of robots is often based on this lack of conscience. This year, however, we have been forced to face these worries and create technology to help society and keep people safe without time to truly consider the negative consequences that would normally hamper these technological progressions.

Over the past year the pandemic has accelerated the use of AI and machine learning with new technologies popping up all the time. From remote regions receiving medical supplies via drones to the creation of health equipment databases that monitored the availability of assets in the NHS; data sharing across borders facilitating the discovery of new vaccines and treatments to the creation of track and trace apps, the past year has witnessed a range of data-driven interventions. However successful they may have been, these technologies have worked to improve the human experience in a very short space of time and if we had lived in fear of the negative repercussions or assumed as humans that we would be more successful without them, the level of harm over the past year would have been dramatically higher.

Although I still maintain my reservations towards voice activated speakers and would not advocate for technology to replace roles that rely on human emotion, this book has opened my eyes to the world of science fiction, the humanity that technology can possess and the good that 'robots' have brought to our 'new normal'.