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Isaac Asimov’s disturbing message for 21st-century humankind

The thinker and science fiction author anticipated a connected society, the ecological crisis and the dilemmas presented by artificial intelligence. He believed in progress, but his prophecies are not reassuring

Isaac Asimov, en 1980.Photo: Alex Gotfryd (CORBIS / Getty)
Ricardo de Querol

Isaac Asimov began to write stories about robots in 1939, texts that anticipated by more than 80 years the debates about artificial intelligence that we face today. Asimov’s robots abided by three laws: never to harm a human being, by action or inaction; always obey, as long as that does not conflict with the first law; and protect its own existence, as long as that does not conflict with the first or second laws. The Russian-born author compulsively wrote science fiction and scientific and historical dissemination books; he used to say that he suffered from claustrophilia, a taste for being confined. When he died, in 1992, he left behind almost 500 published titles.

The documentary Isaac Asimov, A Message to the Future (2022), by French director Mathias Théry, presents the thinker’s words, addressed to the citizens of a 21st century that he would never get to see. It opens with him explaining to the viewers that he does not suffer from false modesty — or any kind of modesty, for that matter; he is one of the three great science fiction authors of his time. He understood the genre as a promoter of debates that were yet to come, but without determinisms; it simply presented the options from which humanity would have to choose. He opposed the myth of the mad scientist, very popular after the world wars, and believed in research as the great driving force of progress and social change.

The writer imagined a society managed by interconnected computers; was worried about an ecological crisis caused by pollution and the extinction of species, which only international cooperation could solve; and he foresaw the dilemmas that would arise from the coexistence between people and intelligent machines. Regarding this last matter, he saw two possible outcomes: AI systems taking our jobs and leaving us destitute, or freeing us from painful or routine tasks, allowing us to develop our creativity. We still do not know which of these two directions the future will take.

Asimov would not have shared the apocalyptic predictions made by the current heads of the artificial intelligence business. What’s more: he invited humans to assume with sportsmanship that they will be surpassed by their creations. He wanted to be optimistic about the human species. When robots are smart enough, he said, they should replace us, as one species replaces another when it is more effective: “I don’t think Homo sapiens has 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,” he points out, “that the sooner they replace us, the better.” When AI enslaves us, the wise man believed, it will be because we deserve it.

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