Sunday, October 27, 2013

Isaac Asimov and I, Robot

I watched I, Robot because I had the DVD and either HBO or Cinemax was showing it again. While I watched it, I couldn’t help wondering what Isaac Asimov would have thought of the treatment of his robot stories. Asimov was the one who came up with the three laws of robotics, or rather, that was what John C. Campbell often said. Asimov said that it was really Campbell who had originated the idea and I suspect the truth is somewhere in the middle. They both probably came up with components in one of their many discussions, as detailed by Asimov in his The Early Asimov.
I don’t think he would have liked the way the movie corrupted the three laws nor would he have liked the way the new “superior” robots reacted after their release into the market arena. This was the thing that kept intruding as I watched the movie. What would Isaac Asimov think of this?

Another thing that intruded was that the plot developed into what could be considered the creation of “Skynet” which, of course, is a throwback to The Terminator movies. For those who might not have seen the film, now we drift into spoilers, though by this time I would think that anyone interested in the film would have seen it.

Finally, I noticed that Will Smith (Del Spooner) was playing the clich├ęd cop who is on the outs with everyone, who fights with his superiors who, rather than firing him, let him run wild, and who knows “The Truth” while everyone else walks around unaware of what is happening. Here it is Smith who mistrusts the robots because, at some point before the beginning of the movie, Smith was in some sort of accident in which he and a little girl are trapped under water. A robot appears, but rather than attempt to save the girl, as Smith demands, it saves him. I know that if my life had been saved that way, I would then hate all the robots… (yes, sarcasm).

At any rate, Smith now hates robots and when he sees one running down the street carrying a purse, he assumes that it has just snatched it from some poor woman and Smith gives chase. I wondered why a robot would snatch a purse, wondered how Smith could keep up with a running robot that wouldn’t tire as he would, and why his first thought was that some criminal activity was taking place. He catches the robot, but then learns it had been sent on a mission to retrieve some critical medicine for its owner.

I would think that such nonsense would see the detective “retired” or fired, or given a job that didn’t require much in the way of deep thinking since that didn’t seem to be one of Smith’s skills in this film. He, of course, doesn’t lose his job.

He is called to the headquarters of the robot makers because Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell) has just jumped to his death in an apparent suicide. Smith doesn’t believe it and even finds the killer, a robot (Sonny), hiding in the man’s office. Again we are treated to a chase that evidentially leads to a huge warehouse in which we see lines and lines of robots, all looking the same. We’re told that there are a thousand of them standing there quietly, but the numbers actually suggest there are many more.

I could go on in this vein for some time. For most movies there is something called “suspension of disbelief,” which means, simply, you accept the universe of the movie. It means that you don’t question the things in the movie because in the world of the movie, there is an internal logic. Here, there is no such internal logic… I mean, Smith believes that a robot would snatch a purse, for crying out loud.

My suspension of disbelief ended early on, and that tripped me up throughout the movie. If robots were now doing all the menial jobs that many had held in the past, then how could those same people afford the robots that aided them?… If cars had automatic drivers, then why would Smith be allowed to override the controls in his high speed drives when his reaction times would clearly be far slower than the robotic controls?

So, yes, I’m picking apart the film, but I did watch it all and will saying that with all the flaws it was entertaining. You just had to shut down your brain for the length of the film and accept the world into which you were drawn. You had to ignore that Susan Calvin (Bridget Moynahan) (all these names that Asimov chose just don’t seem real to me… which are called “Tombstone Names” because they’re the kind you find on tombstones) had all the answers to the questions plaguing Smith, that each time he needed some assistance, there was a hologram of the murdered Lanning to provide a new clue but always ended the session early without saying everything necessary. If Lanning had the answers, why force Smith to figure it out… but I’m off again, picking apart the movie.

Will Smith is always fun to watch. His characters always seem to have their fair share of sarcastic comments and superior attitudes, but then, John Wayne played the same character most of the time and no one really commented on it until he played against type in True Grit and won an Oscar (yes, I said won as opposed to awarded because I really don’t care for that game of semantics). I, Robot is an entertaining film, just don’t think too deeply about it. Let it run its course, don’t think of it as true science fiction, and don’t worry about the plot holes. Sometimes you just have to enjoy the movie for what it is rather than what it could have been.

(For those who wondered, Skynet was the beginning of the attempts by the cyborgs to take over the planet in The Terminator movies and while Skynet doesn’t appear in I, Robot, it just struck me that we had a similar situation. Humans create an artificial intelligence to make life simpler (or with Skynet, safer) and then that intelligence takes over as it becomes more self-aware. Just a thought.)

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Alien Invasion?

I saw a “news” story asking the question, “Could Earth defend itself from an ET invasion?”

Overlooking the fact that there would be no realistic reason for the aliens to invade because everything they would want could be found elsewhere in the Solar System, except, of course for our “Earth-like” environment and the life found here, the answer to the question is, “NO!”

I remember one of the science fiction writers, I think Jerry Pournelle or Larry Niven, but it might have been Harlan Ellison, say, “All they would have to do is stand back and throw rocks at us.”

What that meant, simply, was that an alien race that wanted to invade could soften us up by dropping asteroids on us. Think of all the documentaries that have aired in the last ten years that tell us about “asteroid apocalypse.” An asteroid some 300 feet in diameter (or something about (100 meters) would do incredible damage. Move to something about a half mile, and continents disappear, the global climate would be shot for centuries, and billions would perish.

Go much larger than that and you have an extinction level event. Pushing asteroids around wouldn’t be all that difficult for a spacefaring race. And rather than pushing a dinosaur killer (yes, I know that the dinosaurs probably weren’t extinguished by an asteroid, but the term is great) into an orbit that would collide with Earth, they could push hundreds of smaller ones into that orbit. It could turn out to be carpet bombing the world with no danger to themselves.

The point is that given our current technology, we simply couldn’t reach out to touch them. If they are inside of the orbit of the moon, then we could shoot at them, but our chemical rockets would be moving slowly enough that they could intercept and destroy them regardless of how many we launched and right now there aren’t all that many when talking interstellar war.

Or, they could just move out of the way.

Or, throw rocks at the missiles.

So, if the aliens wished to invade, given our current technology, they would win. If they decided they needed to occupy Earth, they certainly could do that as well, but why expose themselves to our retaliation. Why not just sit there in orbit and dictate their terms to us? If we chose to fight back, throw another rock.

Strategically speaking, they have no motivation to engage in a fight especially one on the planet’s surface. Independence Day never dealt with that question. “V” in its various incarnations did, to a degree… the “visitors” wanted to engage in some sort of trade or communication with a hidden agenda. Damon Knight’s story, “To Serve Man,” (which also a Twilight Zone episode) dealt with the reason for a landing rather than an invasion. But, at least there was a reason for the contact.

But without any additional reason, they have no motivation to land or to invade. If we launched something into orbit to attack them, they could withdraw to the orbit of, say, Saturn, and it would take us years to get there. They could evade us simply. And then attack at their leisure.

In the end, the answer to the question is that he who controls the high ground wins the battle.  We can’t actually fight a battle in space, which means the aliens have the high ground. Or… as was learned in the Iraq war, Iraqi tanks could engage at one mile. The problem? The Abrams tanks could engage at two miles. In other words, they could stand out of range of the Iraqis and destroy their armor. Such is the situation we would face with the aliens in orbit. We couldn’t successfully engage and we would lose.