- What it means to be human
- Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics
- “Bicentennial Man”
What it Means to be Human
Although science fiction often uses robots and aliens in stories, please read those characters metaphorically. Most authors aren’t trying to predict how far artificial intelligence will advance; instead, they use robots to represent something about humanity. Oftentimes aliens stand in as representing different racial, ethnic, or national attributes. The next few texts will deal with what it means to be human, and we’ll end with the first science fiction text, which is all about human nature: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics
You’ve encountered these already in I, Robot (1950), so they’re no doubt familiar. Here they are:
- 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.
Here’s a humorous comic strip that considers why Asimov ordered the laws the way he did.
Asimov came up with these laws with help from his mentor John W. Campbell, who was a major science fiction magazine editor during the Golden Age of Science Fiction (late 1930s-1950s). As you read in I, Robot, even though there are laws (coding) governing robot behavior, there are glitches! Humans might be predictable in a lot of ways, but we don’t always follow programs…neither does Andrew in “Bicentennial Man.”
I’ll have more notes up soon, but I wanted to let you know something about Judy-Lynn del Rey to whom Asimov dedicates this story. The del Reys, Judy-Lynn and Lester, were good friends of Asimov. During the 1960s and 1970s, Asimov attended lots of science fiction conferences…on the East Coast. He hated flying but did make it to England on a boat. The science fiction community was a close-knit group, and many lived in New York and New England. Asimov made the move from New York City to Boston and back to New York City. In his autobiography, he mentions that in the late 1960s he noticed that science fiction writers were heading west to California because Hollywood was paying a lot of money for films and television. It wouldn’t be until 1977 before American culture was taken by surprise with…come on, you know. Anyway, in the setup to this short story (technically an novellete), Asimov recounts that Judy-Lynn del Rey gave him the idea for it, and he forgot. I wanted to point this out because editors are often overlooked in the creation of authors’ works. Asimov does a good job recounting the support of his editors in his autobiography, but, even with a memory as solid as his, there are glitches!
Essay #2 draft is due on Monday, 6/17, so make sure you submit that before 11:00 pm. This seems really soon after Essay #1 was due, but we have a quick turnaround in this 5-week summer session. The more effort you put into your draft, the easier the final submission will be. Good luck!