Isaac Asimov Got Us Here. But What Will We Do About Our Mule Next?
Isaac Asimov may have been the greatest science fiction writer of all time. He certainly was one of the greatest science fiction writers who was also a scientist. In fact most of the books he wrote are non-fiction books not science fiction books.
These guys inspired the 21st century. Much of the 21st century was shaped by these plot lines developed by these writers. Arguably, Isaac Asimov has been the most prophetic. His Three Laws of Robotics
are a set of rules devised by the author. The rules were in his 1950 collection I, Robot .
The Three Laws are:
- First Law A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- Second Law A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- Third Law A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
These laws form an organizing principle and unifying theme for Asimov’s robotic-based fiction and the stories linked to it. These stories and these ideas have been a driving force toward the artificial intelligence we are now seeing.
Remember these ideas are from over SEVENTY years ago. Switch out artificial intelligence for robot in his stories and they become eerily prophetic. Asimov visions still provide useful insight into our relationship with technology.
Frankly, most science fiction today is still rehashing their story lines out of the science fiction from the fifties. Asimov and his circle were outliers then but have become mainstream nowadays. Even in video games, there are very often no new ideas in these stories just re-imagining of these writers' plot lines. However, these stories are SOOO OLD.
Have we learned nothing new? Surely in seventy years we have learned something and evolved somehow as a society. Have we not grown beyond them? Perhaps we have not. Why is our society so socially stunted? Perhaps we have been practicing social distancing for too long? Technology has had such effects without doubt
Asimov predicts this social distancing problem too! In his book, The Naked Sun
, you see social distancing taken to an unexpected level. Back when I read the novel it seemed impossible for any society to reach this level of disconnect from each other. Even an “aspie” like me found it difficult to imagine a society like the socially distant one Asimov imagines. Yet the pandemic has now put us all firmly on this path. Coronavirus has really made this seem not so far-fetched any longer.
The aforementioned plot lines of Asimov are from the I, Robot series of books. A series more people are familiar with due to Will Smith's movie of the same name. Asimov wrote other books though.
The Foundation books
are lesser known but if they are half as prophetic as the robot books, well we are in for a rocky ride. In the Foundation series, from seventy years ago, Asimov postulates a new science called psychohistory. The name is a misnomer because it is predictive analytics and chaos theory applied to humanity. In any case, psychohistory is the name Asimov gave it.
Psychohistory depends on the idea that, while one cannot foresee the actions of a particular individual, algorithms applied to large groups of people could predict the general flow of future events.
The character responsible for the science's creation, Hari Seldon
, established two axioms
1] the population whose behavior was modeled should be sufficiently large 2] the population should remain in ignorance of the results of the application of psychohistorical analyses because if it is aware, the group changes its behaviour.
The story’s primary psychohistorian is a man named Hari Seldon. The books are set in the future in which there is much strife and war in the galaxy. Through an application of math and artificial intelligence, Hari Seldon can make predictions about the future. He can put mankind back on the path to civil society and peace.
In the books, Hari Seldon does put humanity back on a stable footing. He creates a society which is heavily controlled by his psycho historical predictions. These were made years before and the predictions are sealed only to be revealed at certain points. At each point, the power of psychohistory is driven home by the incredible accuracy of the predictions. Hari Seldon is kind of remotely running society from the grave with these predictions made years and years before.
However, a random event finally throws the psychohistory predictions off kilter. One could actually make the case the pandemic has shown how a “random” event cannot be easily encoded into models or predicted by artificial intelligence. Watching the stock market these days is proof enough of how crazy markets have become making it very difficult for the investing-bots. The best investing AI algorithms may actually rival Hari Seldon in their ability to make predictions
about global behaviors
SPOILER ALERT: some important plot elements to the Foundation story are about to be revealed. In the series Foundation, it is not a virus or a pandemic which causes psychohistory’s predictions to come off the rails, it is a person. An unexpected person comes onto the scene. This person of unusual charisma changes the psychohistory equation's accuracy. In Asimov’s Foundation stories this person is known as The Mule.
I submit to you that Isaac Asimov is our Hari Seldon. He has been predicting the future for us since just after World War II. His novels and stories defined a social future as it evolves in conjunction with technology. His novels have made some surprising but accurate predictions about 21st century society.
This has been Asimov’s great gift to us for over seventy years. We have a framework to understand our culture in the context of these new and powerful technologies. However, we are reaching the limits of Asimov's ability to predict the future.
Donald Trump is our Mule. Who would have predicted the confused and inadequate response to the coronavirus? This is just one example of very unexpected events which have taken us all out of our comfort zones. Asimov tells us the Mule creates chaos. The Mule enjoys chaos. The Mule can operate effectively in chaos. The Mule changes the trajectory of society ergo the future becomes far less predictable until a new trajectory is established.
Isaac Asimov got us here. He was our psychohistorian but now the Mule has arrived. Asimov predicted so much of our social structures of the 21st century. We face our Mule. We are on our own from here. Can we figure it out?
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