Et Tu, Asimov? Why A Great Society?

Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov was a fantastic writer of sci-fi. Absolutely my favorite. His vision of 3 robotic laws will serve us well as AI happens in the decades ahead… and his vision of humans and robots converging in the millennia’s ahead is, I think, a pretty compelling vision for humanity. If you find Asimov’s robot books applicable to today’s Covid world you might also be interested in a character called the Mule in Asimov’s Foundation trilogy who somehow inexplicably takes over the universe.

Another of his novel, The End of Eternity, describes a group of self-selected humans, that use analytical tools to master both past and future history. In the process, they extinguished the creative and risk taking traits of humanity. Isaac Asimov’s stories showed that science such as psychohistory (study of history, sociology, and mathematical statistics) is both flawed and a really bad idea. Humanity needs the surprises.

From a technological standpoint, we are getting closer to the sci-fi novels of 50 years ago. You may think of this as utopia or dystopia, but we have gotten a glimpse of a Brave New World where human needs are met “virtually” – where entertainment, occupation, socialization, and commerce are all delivered to your home while you are ‘in sweats’ on an exercycle. No need to interact with “real” people at all.

Whether this revolution can be stopped – or shaped – is an open question. Asimov’s novels foretold a world where humans and machines needed to coexist, and set boundaries, but the darker novelists were less sanguine about our prospects. You do not have to be a science fiction writer in order to predict the future, at least in very general terms that can look suspiciously like truisms. What have thousands of years of recorded and unrecorded history taught us?

  1. Change is inevitable and is not necessarily coincident with the concept called “progress.”
  2. Humans are fallible and therefore any systems and institutions developed by humans are inherently fallible and will ultimately disappear or at least change so radically so as to be unrecognizable to the initial developers.
  3. All things being equal, most of the time, people will opt for short-term, opportunistic solutions – economic, social, political, technological – over long term considerations.
  4. The larger and more complex a society becomes, the more fragile it is until at some point the potential fragility is greater than its potential resilience, and some event, often unexpected, causes societies to break apart and reform.
  5. In other words, nothing lasts forever and this too shall pass – for reasons that are not always immediately obvious.

This week’s increase in Covid-19 instances across Singapore is another another setback for businesses attempting to get their staff to return to work. While social separation measures may ultimately fade away, concerns about the future of office life will remain. While managers say they want to see their workers face to face again, employees want more freedom in selecting where they work, which is leading to many firms pursuing a middle road known as hybrid work. However, this strategy may be more difficult than bringing individuals back to the office or having them work entirely remotely.

People should also keep in mind that change to work culture isn’t just a product of the pandemic. Part of the shift taking place has to do with accessibility and power dynamics in the workplace. Being involved in technology made it very clear to me that the ability to work remotely would allow companies to hire anywhere in the world, usually where the work could be done at lower wages and benefits. Today workers are celebrating being tethered by just a cable line to the office, but may feel differently when they realize how easily that line can be cut. Navigating the brave new world of hybrid work in Singapore need to be mindful of potential problems such as the one that tripped up Apple.

There’s no better place to start with any analysis of autocratic government than Orwell. Reagan said “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Sure, humans are animals. It’s obvious: all you have to do is look. To destroy humanity, all you have to do is provoke enough inequality that democracy fails in one of the large, industrialized economies. AI will greatly accelerate that process. Indeed, if you wanted to design a technology to displace white collar jobs, AI is the perfect tool. I could not agree more. “AI should not be weaponized” sounds like famous words and wishful thinking.

Besides, it’s already fully weaponized for commercial and political purposes, and it seems pretty clear that plenty of work has gone into military applications as well. A little puzzled at the allergic reaction some are having to science fiction. At its best, it is a tool for modeling challenges we may yet face.

This is all way too early. We still do not know how or even if the pandemic will end. I remember all those predictions a year ago; most of what was predicted did not come to pass simply because the pandemic did not end in a few months as most assumed. What if the virus never goes below a threshold where people are comfortable to be in crowds without a mask? And/or what if the virus mutates in such a way that the vaccinated are still at substantial risk. In that case you can kiss city life goodbye.

Human beings were not meant to sit in little cubicles staring at computer screens all day, filling out useless forms and listening to eight different bosses drone on about about mission statements. Staying home has its pluses, but when working in person, I made some good, longterm friends. There’s never a guarantee about any kind of relationship, but I think that there is more room for bonding when working physically together. Working from home is great when the weather is lousy and transportation isn’t easy. But I miss the camaraderie of the office, the company cafeteria (ours offered a breakfast bar as well as bagels and danishes), free coffee in the kitchen and a news stand downstairs, the tech guy who was right down the hall when your computer had a fit. I yearn for the good old days of the cool, clean office, where the perks were taken for granted and a day at home was a time to rest.

Ah, life ain’t great for all of us — Covid is still churning, unemployment is still too high — but it’s sure better. I’m feeling it, too. How bout you?


Sjorne Shen




7 Responses to “Et Tu, Asimov? Why A Great Society?”

  • #08-193 Huang Ba Dan Always:

    Looks like stuff from THE TERMINATOR and ALIEN movies is going to come true. Your friends and colleagues could be artificial persons or robots.

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  • Temusik Patriot:

    Science Fiction and the Reality of AI (artificial intelligence) are miles apart one is Imagination and the other is Reality…as in Evil over Good AI as in (artificial insermination or even cloning) to Natural Procreation and the Winner is The bastard who brought in Coleman a team member cloning Dolly the sheep hoping to clone himself after killing a million+++ unborn through his LEEgal Abortion

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  • BK:

    Yo @Sjorne Shen. Thank u for the thoughtfully crafted piece.

    Indeed, what is human, what is life? The entropic nature of life as it unfolds, its erratic impulses, belies its beauty. Freedom is chaos, the ability to innovate, respond, overcome, the stubbornness to perpetuate a specie that perhaps epitomize and at the same time shows the depth of depravity of life on Earth, for me, is human, the essence at once godly and evil; this duality, the pendulum seems forever in motion to veer from one end to the other.

    Freedom after all, is the choice to do good or bad.

    We used to live a little liked communes in agrarian periods. The space and time of rural folks , to us urbanites, tech consumers, do seem more intimate, more community.

    And even optically, we see extensions of ourselves , with earphones, communication with multiple people via the handphone, and yes, the handphone is an auxilliary brain in very real ways.

    Does this make us less human or even less humane?

    The art of sex for me, which is tactile, lustful, a build up of emotions, brain and physical to a climax, is now replaced by toys, a solitude that seems to be more preferred by this generation.

    But is this the lost of being human? Or is this a cultural shift?

    Im nostalgic, that is surely human. But Im hopeful, and not without evidence, that the young are careful guardians, maybe better as well, to shepherd a fairer world, and in time liked humans, are just as nostalgic as we are (:

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  • xoxo:

    AI ,sure.

    Humans will be *extinguished* ,more so than anything else.

    Even vaccines need so many boosters at such short intervals.
    Talk about SCI-FI?

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  • MayHumanity neverbe artificial:

    “World peace must develop from inner peace. Peace is not just the mere absence of violence. Peace is, I think, the manifestation of Human Compassion. This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is Kindness.”

    - The Venerable Dalai Lama XIV

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  • Sjorne Shen:

    Thank you BK, thank you, bro!
    Your reflection here stimulates me to think a bit deeper, or in other words to think whether a more spiritual depth should be brought to the surfaces of sociological and ethical discourse. We are in a crisis because we no longer are dealing with the same parameters to analyze what is lately going on.

    I have to chuckle when I hear that millennials faced a different path because of really big things- technology advancements happening at breakneck speed. Ultimately, this generation will settle down, have babies and go through some of the same trials and tribulations as past generations, albeit later. At the same time: art, music, literature, dance, dialogue, philosophy, religion, friendship, love-making, along with the admittedly less charming elements that co-exist. People will still yearn for interactions with people and other stimuli, like the arts, nature, shopping, sex? etc. Perhaps even more so if they are spending less time in offices. So give the world to them, and watch them solve our problems while creating new ones for their kids (:

    IMHO, the best antidote to digital alienation and political abduction I think is actual socialization, interacting with real people. Personally, I grieve every day for the tremendous loss of human contact, humanity & culture that was given up because of these insidious devices eg: mass addiction to “smart” phones despite its’ obvious benefits.

    Another thought: fiction is often the pathfinder for science. Dostoevsky opened the door through which Freud, Jung, Adler, Erickson and Menninger progressed. An author exploring the dark corridors of human nature casts light on undiscovered intrinsic qualities. Fiction is the universe in which the avatar of human understanding gestates from myth and hypothesis, and maturing into drama and history as it gropes into the light and takes the stage as science, which is an eternal work in progress.

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  • So how "human" is AI?:

    The “Chinese Room Argument” is a thought experiment of John Searle (1980a) and it’s associated (1984) derivation. It is one of the best known and widely credited arguments against the claims of “artificial intelligence”(AI) — that is to say, claims that computers really do, or at least can (someday) “think”. According to Searle’s original presentation, the argument is based on two key claims:
    (1)that brains cause minds and (2) that syntax (grammar) doesn’t suffice for semantics (meaningfulness). The target of this argument is what Searle dubs as the proponents of “strong AI” which states that “the computer is not merely a tool in the study of the mind, rather an appropriately programmed computer really “is” a mind in the sense that computers given the right programs can be literally said to understand and have other cognitive states” (1980).
    Now, Searle contrasts “strong AI” with “weak AI.” According to weak AI, computers just simulate thought; their seeming understanding isn’t real understanding (it is just as-if); their seeming calculation is only as-if calculation, etc. Nevertheless, in our general experience, computer simulation is useful for studying the mind just as it is for studying the weather and other things. It is just that a human being is a conscious being unto itself.

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