July 21, 2004

by Reb Yudel
Slate vs Smith's Sci Fi

From Slate: Isaac Asimov - How I, Robot gets the science-fiction grandmaster wrong.
Asimov's novel I, Robot-”which "suggested" the new movie of the same name--”is basically an evangelical work, an argument against man's superstitious fear of machines. By the end of the book, machines run the economy and most of the government. Their superior intelligence and cool rationality eliminate imperfections such as famine and unemployment. Asimov mocks unions for having shortsightedly "opposed robot competition for human jobs," and he derides religious objections to new technology as the work of "Fundamentalist radicals." Almost without exception, anytime robots in the book appear to be doing wrong or seeking to harm their human masters, it turns out that the suspicious humans are misguided; the robots, as programmed, are acting in man's best interest.

Asimov's faith in the rule of robots was genuine and based on his faith in the rule of reason. He viewed his now-canonical Rules of Robotics--”the code for robot behavior used in his books--”as a roadmap for human ethics. Just as Asimov's machines are better than people at calculating mathematics, they're superior at coming to moral judgments as well. Susan Calvin, the book's protagonist, calls robots a "cleaner better breed" than humans because they're "essentially decent." Superior logic produces superior ethics.

The movie takes the exact opposite approach and thereby betrays Asimov's vision. It elevates feeling and emotion over reason as a tool to determine the right moral decisions. Will Smith's character, Del Spooner, sneers at robots as "slaves to logic." When another character pleads, "Whatever you feel, just think," the audience is meant to take his preference for reason over sentiment as a sign of his villainy. And when the main antagonist outlines the Dastardly Plan unveiled during the film's climax, the villain defends the treachery by asserting, "My logic is undeniable."

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