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Not Quite A Book Review: “The Caves Of Steel”

July 3, 2015

You’ve probably never heard of Roj Nemmenuh. He was killed outside New York City. The primary suspect in his murder was a robot. 

Or rather it’s more accurate to say that he will die outside of New York City in the distant future. About 3,000 years in the future. 

I suppose it might be even more accurate to say he died outside of New York City back in June 1954. That was the year that Isaac Asimov’s “The Caves of Steel” was first published. Solving Roj’s murder is the main plot point of the story. The story takes place on earth where most people dislike and distrust robots.


 I was reminded of this story this week. 

A robot killed a man last week near Kassal Germany. According to the reports, 

The robot grabbed and crushed the  technician against a metal plate.

We don’t even know his name, the unfortunate victim. They haven’t released it yet. The Volkswagon plant is installing robots that will work alongside humans on the assembly line. This particular robot was designed to work in a cage that keeps people a safe distance. But, the fact remains that this man died at the hands of a robot. 

The famous science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke (author of 2001 A Space Odyssey) said it’s much easier to write fiction set 500 years in the future than science fiction set 50 years in the future. The near future keeps changing too fast for writers to keep up. Just look at Star Trek and how many of the innovations have come to pass.

Asimov’s robots, set so far in the future would have never done what the robot did last week. They couldn’t. Asimov’s robots were physically incapable of harming a human, or through inaction causing a human to come to harm. It’s the first law of Robotics. . . in Asimov fiction anyway. 

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Asimov’s robots were far more advanced than today’s robots. The really advanced ones looked just like a person. Today, I guess we’d call them androids. 

The Caves of Steel, despite being set thousands of years in the future, has no computer in the story. The world had only a few computers in 1954 and they were the size of small houses. The personal computer wasn’t invented until 1980. Asimov predicted the rise of the computer. He invented his own version of a computer to power his robots. They had something called a positronic brain. Today, we would see this literary device as a computer. The reason the positronic brain is important to the story, is that in addition to allowing the robots to function, the three laws were built into the nero-framework. His robots were both incredibly powerful and extremely limited.

The majority of robots we have today are not humanoid style robots. The industrial robot that killed the man in Germany had no head. It had a single arm. It certainly didn’t have a positronic brain. Volkswagan is still investigating the cause of what they are calling a tragic accident. Everyone agrees that the robot killed him, the question is what went wrong. 

No one will accuse the robot of murder, even if the investigation finds fault with the machinery. We have built our army of robots, but unlike Asimov’s robots we’ve not embued them with a reverence for human life. Futurists fear that as robots become more powerful, and achieve faster processing power, that they will eventually push humans out of the workforce and out of the decision making process. 

It scares many people. 

Isaac Asimov predicted that too. 

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren. 

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(c) 2015 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved 

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