Saturday, December 12, 2015

1. Robots Run Amok

Decades before Isaac Asimov formulated his well-known “Three Laws of Robotics”, Edmond Hamilton published a story that clearly demonstrated the need for such regulations.  Readers will recall that the three laws are essentially the following:  1) a robot may not harm a human being, or allow a human to be harmed through inaction, 2) a robot must always obey human directives unless they infringe on the first law, and 3) the robot must seek to preserve itself as long as such effort does not negate the first two laws. 

The “Three Laws” are an application of the Golden Rule—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—to artificially intelligent appliances, with some additional emphasis on obedience.  As with adolescent children, we expect and hope that our smarter machines will be reasonable, considerate, and socially appropriate in public.

The contraptions in Edmond Hamilton’s The Metal Giants (1926) ignore the first two rules entirely, slaughtering thousands of people by crushing them beneath buildings or asphyxiating them with poison gas. They comply with only the first half of the third rule, not only preserving themselves but also replicating and enhancing their hive mind intelligence.  Like teenagers, the metal giants have their own rules, their own goals, the principle one being “destroy all humans”.

The Metal Giants is one of Hamilton’s earliest stories, published the same year as his first offering, a “lost race” tale in the tradition of Abraham Merritt called The Monster-God of Mamurth, (see also A “World-Wrecker’s” First Publication).  The Metal Giants owes a lot to Mary Shelley—the Frankenstein monster is explicitly mentioned—and also shows the influence of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897).  The description of the metal giants recalls that of the Martian tripods:

“…towering metal giants cast in a roughly human form, each with two immense limbs, smooth columns of metal ten feet across, looming up all of a hundred yards in height.  And set on those…the body, an upright cylinder of the same gleaming metal, fifty feet in diameter, quite smooth and unbroken of surface…on its smooth top…a small, triangular case in each side of which glittered a lens of glass.  And from each cylinder projected two additional limbs, arms, shining and flexible, hanging almost to the ground, tapering, twisting.”

The science in Hamilton’s stories tends to be a bit slapdash and impressionistic.  A professor of “electro-chemistry” named Detmold creates the prototype of an artificial brain, “whose atomic structure he claimed was analogous to the atomic structure of a living brain.”  Electrical vibrations of a certain frequency cause the beginnings of consciousness to appear.  It has something to do with selenium.  But Detmold is scorned by his peers and forced to resign from the university.  He disappears for several years, but continues his work in a remote area of West Virginia.

Subsequent events in news stories and eyewitness accounts are chronicled by Detmold’s closest friend, an English teacher named Lanier.  Lanier connects the reports of giant metal monsters rampaging the countryside with what he recalls of his friend’s research.  When he investigates the epicenter of the spreading destruction he discovers the aftermath of an experiment in robotics gone dangerously awry.  Lanier finds Detmold’s lab journal—how many times has this device been used?—and comes to understand the nature of the terror the scientist has unleashed. 

Detmold has inadvertently created an artificial intelligence able to sustain itself, replicate, and develop ever more powerful ways to exert its will.  The metal brain creates its own “mindless tentacled slave machines”, deadly armaments, and mining operations.  From its base in the mountains, the metal brain launches devastating attacks on nearby cities.  The final conflagration between the scientist and the metal brain, between creator and created, has a clever ironic touch.

It is interesting, to me at least, to compare Hamilton’s story with other robot stories from the time period.  In Frank Belknap Long’s The Robot Empire (1934), the robots have won and subjugated the human race, which they keep around for amusement and unskilled labor.  Technically speaking, the robots are machines installed with human brain tissue, a process that transforms them into all powerful but unfeeling cybernetic contraptions.  They are ruled by a benevolent dictator and über-brain, who still keeps dancing harem girls in his court for entertainment.  (See also Robots Rule My World.)  

The Metal Giants is not a great story, but to be fair, it comes from quite early in Hamilton’s career—he would later develop considerable skill and subtlety in his work, (see for example Mars and P.T.S.D.).  The Metal Giants typical of pulp science fiction of the time in being devoid of characterization and strangely depopulated, given the scope of events in the narrative.  There are no women, and judging by their absence from the story, women either did not exist on Earth in 1926 or had not yet been discovered by pulp writers like Hamilton. 

But the gist of the story is not the human characters or their relationships; the content is wholly subservient to the ideas, the “what-ifs”.  In this case, what would happen if science created a machine that could operate independently of human control?  (Historically the answer has been: “something bad”.)  It may be that The Metal Giants serves as an early twentieth century metaphor for anxiety about rampant industrialization or perhaps, a few years before the devastation of the Great Depression, fear of an out of control economy.  But my “inner psychologist” suspects that robots, like pre-industrial idols, dolls, puppets and mannequins serve as a screen on which to project human selfishness, aggression, and violence.  Hence the need for “Three Laws of Robotics”, and for humans, something like “The Ten Commandments”.


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