Thursday, March 17, 2005

Vonnegut Battles the Pink Robots

Robots are something, aren't they? They're alternatively glamorous and crude, admirable and pitiable, chillingly automated and chillingly human-like. This is why they're so story-tellable, why we willingly shell out ten bucks to see Will Smith kick robo-butt yet don't bat an eyelash when we discover that [spoiler alert!] he is a robot as well the movie has nothing at all to do with the book. [Ed. What the hell, Jeff Vintar? I know his buttocks are nice, but lots of Will Smith rear-cleavage does not an Asimov movie make.]

In the old days, when a man had trouble turning his beautiful sentiments for a woman into a beautiful sonnet to the woman, he stole something from a book or enlisted the help of an eloquent friend. But things will be different in the future. When the narrator in Kurt. Jr's 8-page story "EPICAC" (from Welcome to the Monkey House) falls desperately in love with one Pat Kilgallen, who, in typical human fashion, refuses to believe the veracity of his love, he's able to one-up all his predeceding schmucks. To win Pat's love, he enlists the help of the smartest robot in the world.

Written before Asimov had hit his stride, this story is nevertheless an Asimovian tale told in Vonnegut's voice. By 'Asimovian,' I mean that the robot EPICAC is beyond anthropomorphized. He's like a Human Vers. 2.0 - he has all the basic human sentiments (e.g. dissatisfaction and loneliness), but they're always expressed in an unselfish manner. Conversely, it is the humans that are predictable and sympathy-repellent.

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 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.
According to one of Asimov's stories, the "3 Laws of Robotics" are also the 3 Laws of Human Beings, or should be. If we disobey them, as we so often do, it is because we have faulty hardwiring.

This little inconsistency in human nature leads to all sorts of possibilities, which Isaac Asimov explored in length. In his stories, humans fall in love with robots, robots fall in love with humans, and robots do tasks of derring-do in order to save the human race self-destruction. But it is the secret little irony of all the Asimov tales (as well as this one Vonnegut tale) that by the end of them we're always rooting for the robots, a little bit frightened and a little bit sickened and a little bit saddened over how cold and calculating humans can be.