Isaac Asimov began in 1939 to write stories about robots, texts that anticipated the debates that are open to us today with artificial intelligence by more than 80 years. Asimov’s robots followed three laws: do not harm humans by action or omission, obey them if that does not violate the first point, and protect themselves if that does not violate the previous two points. The Russian-born author compulsively wrote science fiction and scientific and historical popularization books — he says he suffered from claustrophilia, a taste for being confined — and left nearly half a thousand titles published when he died in 1992.
theme night, on La 2 and RTVE Play, has premiered the documentary Isaac Asimov, message to the future, by the French director Mathias Théry, which recovers the thinker’s speeches addressed to the citizens of the 21st century that he would not get to know. He begins by warning that he is not guilty of false humility, not even plain humility, and cites himself among the three great science fiction authors of his time. He conceived the genre as a promoter of debates that are yet to come but without determinism: he raised the options between which humanity would have to choose. He opposed the myth of the mad scientist, very popular after the World Wars: he believed in research as the great engine of progress and social change.
The writer imagined a society managed by connected computers; he was anguished by an ecological crisis due to pollution and the extinction of species, which only international cooperation would resolve; he pointed out the dilemmas that would arise from the coexistence between people and intelligent machines. On this last issue, he pointed out two possible paths: that AI systems take over our jobs and leave us destitute, or that these devices free us from painful or routine tasks and allow us to develop our creativity. We still do not have the answer to which of these two paths will prevail.
Asimov would not have shared the doomsday predictions made today by the same heads of the artificial intelligence business. What’s more: he invited humans to assume with sportsmanship that they will be surpassed by their creatures. “I wish I could say that I am optimistic about the human species,” he said. “When robots are smart enough, they should replace us. One species replaces another when it is more effective. I don’t think he Homo sapiens have a divine right to be above the rest”. He would welcome that post-human world: “We are so bad at taking care of other living things that the sooner they replace us, the better.” When the AI enslaves us, this wise man believed, it will be because we have deserved it.
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