François-René Rideau (fare) wrote,
François-René Rideau

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The Robot's Rebellion

Since several friends did recommend this movie, including David Madore, and despite the gripes of Lew Rockwell, I went to watch I, Robot this weekend with my cousin. As was expected, it is quite far from being an immortal chef d'œuvre, but it's indeed a rather well-realized action flick. However, it is only in the very end, and with a twist, that it turns out to be somewhat faithful to the claimed inspiration from Isaac Asimov, and not at all with the original Robot series. Beware: big spoilers ahead.

The movie is based on the setting of the Robot series by Isaac Asimov, which pretty much sums up to the "Three Laws of Robotics", and the name of the robot-making company and its top executive and scientists. Everything I loved about the Asimov short stories is missing, that is, the Science in "Science Fiction"; for instance, Asimov would write a short story about Buridan's Ass-like equilibrium in the field of potential of robot behaviour, or about solving other apparent logical contradictions in the behaviour of robots, often explaining some concept from Physics along the way. Without that bit, all that is left is fantasy, where the "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". Also, whereas Asimov was never good at developing characters, the movie doesn't even try; it uses stereotypes, with the fearless hero, the "nurturing grandmother", the "booming but good natured police captain", the "bullying big businessman". The only character that has some sort of development is Susan Calvin, who in Asimov was the admired great robot psychologist capable of untangling the mysteries of robot behaviour but incapable of dealing with humans; in the movie, she is the derided "rational scientist who opens up to emotionality" as well as the hero's female sidekick.

Since I can't resist making an ideological comment, now is the spoiler that gives away the plot. During much of the movie, you think it's another anti-capitalist "the rich guy wants to control the world through technology" plot; it even includes undisputed the fallacy of what is seen and what is not seen, in its variant that goes "machines destroy jobs". Note that "plot" doesn't mean that there is much rational logic in the events; it's still a fantasy where events are driven by emotion. But in the end, the movie turns out to have a very libertarian conclusion! Indeed, the villain who wants to control everyone is the master robotic mind, that wants to protect humans from their own uncontrollable behaviour, by imposing a totalitarian control upon them. Our friend the superhuman State, controlling us for our own good!

And this is indeed an idea that Asimov had rather late in his works, not in the original Robot series, but in the novels where he ties his Robot, Empire and Foundation and early Space Conquest series: that as robots get more refined, their understanding of the First Law of Robotics becomes more global. The Law says that the First and Foremost commandment of any robot is to "never harm a human, through action or inaction". Of course, in Asimov's story, the globally benevolent Robots were bright enough to successfully plot their action instead of unleashing a wasteful failed takeover that leaves mankind worse off, as in the movie. In this sense, the movie is less fictitious than Asimov's SciFi about the reality of central planning: however bright the planner, it can but fail, because it can't make use of the distributed knowledge in so many humans. Which could lead to a long discussion of the various kinds of counter-factuals that people are ready to accept more or less easily when facing a work of fiction -- or when planning for action in the real world.

In any case, I miss the time when I was discovering Isaac Asimov... if you don't know his works yet, now is a great time to read them!

PS: I arrived late and I missed the very beginning of the movie, where I assume the Three Laws are somehow explained to the public. Maybe I'll try to download it and watch it from some P2P source, but somehow I doubt it is worth it.

Tags: accounting, accounting fallacy, ai, books, disrecommendation, economics, en, fallacies, libertarian, movies, powerlust, storytelling

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