A Remarkable Absence of Robots

Dune Messiah / Odyssey

The perils of a robot-free universe. This edition published by New English Library 1977. Cover illustration by Bruce Pennington.

We confidently expect that our conquest of space will be assisted by artificial intelligence of one type or another.  Their imminent arrival in the near future seems inevitable, and they will be with us whether in the form of computers, robots or more extended configurations that we may currently find hard even to imagine.  And science fiction has depicted them at a variety of different levels.

In the Star Trek universe, computers are essential for the day-to-day functioning of normal activities and, although they seem to suffer from the same problems that plague computer systems across the world today, they tend to be largely in the background.  At the other extreme, the highly advanced AI Minds of Iain M Banks’ stories of the Culture effectively run the whole show, to the benefit of both humanoid races and the Minds themselves.  And there is plenty of scope for suggesting how sophisticated AIs might have their own agenda which doesn’t give top priority to human well-being.

But rarely do we come across a space-faring future for humanity that doesn’t feature artificial intelligence at all.  That could raise several problems – and perhaps have a few advantages.

Isaac Asimov created just such a situation in his original Foundation trilogy, beginning with the first novel of that name in 1951.  Although his overall fame might be thought to rest with his stories of robots, and the well-known Three Laws of Robotics introduced in his 1941 short story Liar!, they don’t appear at all in the future Galaxy-wide human civilization of the Foundation tales.  Even so, he made attempts to amalgamate the two overall storylines into one grand series in the 1980s, based around the idea that the First Law might require robots to protect the human race as a whole to ensure its long-term survival, and the robot-free Galactic Empire was, therefore, no mere accident.

Which leads to the interesting thought that a really advanced AI, that really wanted to guarantee the very best for humanity, might simply destroy itself, thereby avoiding a stagnant future where human beings are endlessly protected and mollycoddled by robot servants.  Let people get on with the job themselves, and they will hopefully end up tough enough to survive and conquer the universe.

Or humans might decide that they want to get on with it themselves anyway.  A good example of this is the Dune universe created by Frank Herbert, particularly in his earlier novels in which the Butlerian Jihad, where religious fervour led to the destruction of any intelligent machine that sought to duplicate human thinking, still has a powerful effect on humans throughout the Galaxy.  As the Orange Catholic Bible puts it, “thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind.”

In Dune Messiah, the second novel of the series from 1969, wider implications of such an attitude appear.  The Bene Gesserit sisterhood needs to continue its programme to breed a super-being and has to reach a deal with Paul Atreides to continue his bloodline.  He only agrees to produce a child by artificial insemination.  This horrifies the Reverend Mother: “Loathing boiled in her breast.  The teaching of the Bene Gesserit, the lessons of the Butlerian Jihad – all proscribed such an act.  One did not demean the highest aspirations of humankind.  No machine could function in the way of a human mind.  No word or deed could imply that men might be bred on the level of animals.

A lack of trust in artificial intelligence could lead to widespread further damage to a technological society, and is far from a new concept.  In his 1872 satirical novel Erewhon, Samuel Butler described a fictitious country where there had been an “apparent retrogression in all arts, sciences, and inventions”.  Some centuries earlier, there had been mass destruction of machines that had been “ultimately destined to supplant the race of man.”  Rejecting technology can be a slippery slope.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: The Dull Embers of Technology | Driven to Affection

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