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Danger, Danger Will Robinson
By Keith Bloomfield
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At Mount Sinai, God gave the Jewish people a code to live by the Ten Commandments. In 1940, Russian born and American educated author, Isaac Asimov offered robots not a Decalogue, but a set of three directives to guide the behavior of the next generation.
Though born a Jew, Asimov's religious education was minimal. He considered himself a "Humanist." He even served as the President of the American Humanist Association. A biochemist by training, Asimov was not "hostile" to the religion of his birth and though he authored a Guide To The Bible and The Story of Ruth, he later considered himself an Atheist. His "Laws of Robotics" were introduced in the short story "Runaround" which appeared in the March 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It is difficult not to find the connection to the Ten Commandments.
The Laws of Robotics
First Law: A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second Law: A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
The Laws became the guiding principles not just for Asimov's creations, but also for robots, androids, sentient computers, and a score of synthetic life forms from that day forth. A survey of stories created for print or film testifies to the power of the Laws and underscores the impact of the original Decalogue on work even so far a field from the original intent. In no way is the following an exhaustive list of stories or films that build on the Laws, but only a sampling.
Based on Harry Bates's short story "Farewell to the Master," The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, with a remake slated for 2008), features a towering featureless robot, not unlike a Golem, named Gort. Gort accompanies a peace emissary named Klaatu to earth to warn us that either we learn to play nicely with our neighbors, or our planet will be destroyed. Despite the strength of that admonition, when challenged by army infantrymen, a ray fired from beneath a visor in Gort's forehead destroys their weapons, but not the soldiers. The First Law in practice.
Loosely based on The Tempest, by William Shakespeare, the film Forbidden Planet (1956) remarkably parallels the play. Robby the Robot is the obedient servant of the films Dr. Edward Moribus and like Prospero's Ariel, he cannot harm nor allow a human to be harmed. In a display of Robbie's programming, Dr. Mobius orders Robbie to threaten a human life. Robbie is incapable of such an act. His artificial brain short-circuits and he is unable to act against a human. The Second Law at work. Robert Kinoshita, who designed the metallic Ariel, reprised his work with the creation of "Robot," a character on Irwin Allen's TV series Lost In Space (1965 1968). Robot became the protector of the show's "Space Family Robinson." Ever true to the Laws of Robotics.
The Third Law is more enigmatic. It is sometimes more effectively dramatized when the creation violates the sanction and either kills or threatens a human being or humanity as a whole. In "The Ultimate Computer" episode of Star Trek, the Enterprise has the honor of testing the M5 computer, a device designed to allow humanity to achieve and to protect man from possible "death in space or other dangerous occupations." When the M5's actions result in the deaths of crewmen on several other ships, Captain Kirk accuses the computer of murder and asks it "what is the penalty for murder?" To which the M5 recognizes its guilt and replies, "This unit must die."
HAL (the Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic Computer) in Arthur C. Clarke's Space Odyssey systematically kills off the crew of the spaceship Discovery in an effort to save both himself and his mission. It's only through the actions of astronaut Dave Bowman that HAL is disabled. While HAL exhibits no remorse at the loss of human life, he expresses his fear when he senses his mind going as Bowman shuts down his high level logic functions.
Near the conclusion of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Director James Cameron remains true to the essence of the Third Law by allowing his Terminator to sacrifice himself to save the life of young John Connor and ensure a future Judgment Day and maybe a Terminator 4 movie.
So where are we going with this? It's easy. From the earliest days of the Torah, through references in the Talmud, Jewish folklore, literature, film, and on into television, creation began with "the word." Words provided the directives by which both organic and inorganic "life" shaped their subsistence and relationships. Whether consciously or not, creative individuals, Jewish and gentile alike, have drawn upon a wellspring of Jewish tradition to create new realities and tell their personal stories through tales of the Golem and its myriad heirs.
When Robot on reruns of television's Lost In Space sounds the clarion call, with flailing arms in defense of the show's young protagonist: "Danger, danger Will Robinson," its writers are harkening to a Jewish tradition dating back to the Garden of Eden. A tradition reiterated in folklore, myth, print, and film to this very day, and we are sure, well into tomorrow.
from the June 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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