Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Robot Descartes?

Isaac Asimov's many robot stories (some of which are collected in I, Robot, on which the Will Smith film is loosely based) explore what happens when human beings interact with robots who are programmed to comply with Asimov's famous 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 the 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.

Asimov delights in showing how perfectly logical beings who work within these parameters end up behaving in strange and sometimes humorous ways. In "Reason," QT-1 ("Cutie") a robot who has spent his entire "life" on a space station finds himself reflecting on his existence. Like Rene Descartes, Cutie decides to reject everything he doesn't know for certain and start from scratch, accepting only those principles that seem logically self-evident--with a marvelously absurd result: Cutie deduces that he cannot have been created by human beings because he is superior to them and he eventually invents a religion that involves worship of "the Master," an essential piece of machinery on the station.

Unsurprisingly, this state of affairs is extraordinarily frustrating for Powell and Donovan (the two men assigned to field-test Cutie). Cutie's logic seems unassailable from within his own perspective, and they're unable to demonstrate his error. Like some of Asimov's other robot stories, this one plays with the limits of reason and implies that we cannot expect abstract reasoning in the absence of empirical evidence to guide us to the truth. Ironically, however, as the story closes we find out that Cutie's seriously mistaken picture of the world and his place in it doesn't prevent him from performing his function on the space station with exact precision. Your thoughts?

The pic is the cover of yet another forthcoming philosophy and popular culture volume. I have nothing to do with this one, but the image of Descartes as a terminator was too good to pass up...

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