In the early 1950s, electronic computers were large and awe-inspiring, and were often referred to as ‘electronic brains’. At the same time, industrial automation was making considerable advances, and much more was expected from it. There was considerable speculation about what all this meant for Americans, and for the human race in general.
Given the recent advances of AI and robotics in our own era–and the positive and negative forecasts about the implications–I thought it might be interesting to go back and look at two short story collections on this general theme: Thinking Machines, edited by Groff Conklin, and The Robot and the Man, edited by Martin Greenberg. Both books date from around 1954. Here are some of the stories I thought were most interesting, mostly from the above sources but also a couple of them from other places.
Virtuouso, by Herbert Goldstone. A famous musician has acquired a robot for household tasks. The robot–dubbed ‘Rollo’ by the Masestro–notices the piano in the residence, and expresses interest in it. Intrigued, the Maestro plays ‘Claire de Lune’ for Rollo, then gives him a one-hour lesson and heads off to bed, after authorizing the robot to practice playing on his own. He wakes to the sound of Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’.
Rollo was playing it. He was creating it, breathing it, drawing it through silver flame. Time became meaningless, suspended in midair.
“It was not very difficult,” Rollo explains.
The Maestro let his fingers rest on the keys, strangely foreign now. “Music! He breathed. “I may have heard it that way in my soul. I know Beethoven did.
Very excited, the Maestro sets up plans for Rollo to give a concert–for “Conductors, concert pianists, composers, my manager. All the giants of music, Rollo. Wait until they hear you play!”
But Rollo’s response is unexpected. He says that his programming provides the option to decline any request that he considers harmful to his owner, and that therefore, he must refuse to touch the piano again. “The piano is not a machine,” that powerful inhuman voice droned. “To me, yes. I can translate the notes into sounds at a glance. From only a few I am able to grasp at once the composer’s conception. It is easy for me.”
“I can also grasp,” the brassy monotone rolled through the studio, that this…music is not for robots. It is for man. To me it is easy, yes…it was not meant to be easy.”
The Jester, by William Tenn. In this story, it is not a musician but a comedian who seeks robotic involvement in his profession. Mr Lester…Lester the Jester, the glib sahib of ad lib…thinks it might be useful to have a robot partner for his video performances. It does not work out well for him.
Boomerang, by Frank Russell. In this story, the robot is designed to be an assassin, acting on behalf of a group representing the New Order. Very human in appearance and behavior, it is charged with gaining access to targeted leaders and killing them. If it is faced with an insoluble problem–for example, if the human-appearing ‘William Smith’ should be arrested and cannot talk his way out of the situation–then it will detonate an internal charge and destroy itself. As a precaution, it has been made impossible for the robot to focus its lethal rays on its makers. And, it is possessed of a certain kind of emotional drive–“William Smith hates personal power inasmuch as a complex machine can be induced to hate anything. Therefore, he is the ideal instrument for destroying such power.”
What could possibly go wrong?
Mechanical Answer, by John D MacDonald. For reasons that are never explained, the development of a Thinking Machine has become a major national priority. After continued failures by elite scientists, a practical engineer and factory manager named Joe Kaden is drafted to run the project. And I do mean drafted: running the Thinking Machine project means being separated from his wife Jane, who he adores. And even though Joe has a record of inventiveness, which is the reason he was offered the Thinking Machine job in the first place, he questions his ability to make a contribution in this role.
But Jane, who has studied neurology and psychiatry, feeds him some ideas that hold the key to success. Her idea…basically, a matrix of associations among words and concepts..allows the machine to show more ‘creativity’ than previous approaches, and it shows great skills as a kind of Super-ChatGPT question-answerer.
When the Thinking Machine is demonstrated to an audience which includes not only its American sponsors but the Dictator of Asia, the Ruler of Europe, and the King of the States of Africa, the questions to be asked have been carefully vetted. But when it is asked an unvetted question–“Will the machine help in the event of a war between nations?”…the answer given is unexpected: “Warfare should now become avoidable. All of the factors in any dispute can be give to the Machine and an unemotional fair answer can be rendered.”
Burning Bright, by John Browning. A large number of robots are used to work in the radiation-saturated environment within nuclear power plants. The internal mental processes of these robots are not well understood, hence, no robots are allowed outside of the power plants–it is feared that robot armies could be raised on behalf of hostile powers, or even that robots themselves will become rivals of humans for control of the planet. So robots are given no knowledge of the world outside of power plants, no knowledge of anything except their duty of obedience to humans. And whenever a robot becomes too worn-out to be of any continued usefulness, it is scrapped–and its brain are dissolved in acid.
One day, a robot facing its doom is found to have a molded plastic star in its hands–apparently a religious object.
Though Dreamers, Die, Lester del Rey. Following the outbreak of a plague which looks like it may destroy all human life on earth, a starship is launched. A small group of humans, who must be kept in suspended animation because of the great length of the journey to a habitable planet, is assisted by a crew of robots. When the principal human character, Jorgan, is awakened by a robot, he assumes that the ship must be nearing its destination. It is, but the news is grim. All of the other humans on board have died–Jorgen, for some reason, seems to be immune to the plague, at least so far. And among those who did not survive Anna Holt, the only woman.
If it had been Anna Holt who had survived, Jorgen reflects, she could have continued the human race by using the frozen sperm that has been stored. “So it took the girl! It took the girl, Five, when it could half left her and chosen me…The gods had to leave one uselessly immune man to make their irony complete it seems! Immune”
“No, master,” the robot replies. The disease as been greatly slowed in the case of Jorgen, but it will get him in the end–maybe after thirty years.
“Immunity or delay, what difference now? What happens to all our dreams when the last dreamer dies, Five? Or maybe it’s the other way around.”
All the dreams of a thousand generations of men had been concentrated into Anna Holt, he reflects, and were gone with her. The ship lands on the new world, and it appears to be perfect for humans. “It had to be perfect, Five,” he said, not bitterly, but in numbed fatalism. “Without that, the joke would have been flat.”
Man and robot discuss the world that could have been, the city and the statue to commemorate their landing. “Dreams!” Jorgen erupts. “Still, the dream was beautiful, just as this planet is, master.” Five responds. “Standing there, while we landed, I could see the city, and I almost dared hope. I do not regret the dream I had.”
Jorgen decides that the heritage of humanity can go on–“When the last dreamer died, the dream would go on, because it was stronger than those who had created it; somewhere, somehow, it would find new dreamers.” And Five’s simpatico words–combined with a cryptic partial recording about robot minds and the semantics of the first person signature, left by the expedition’s leader, Dr Craig–convince him that the robots can carry forward the deeper meaning of the human race. Five demurs, though: “But it would be a lonely world, Master Jordan, filled with memories of your people, and the dreams we had would be barren for us.”
There is a solution, though. The robots are instructed to forget all knowledge of or related to the human race, although all their other knowledge will remain. And Jorgen boards the starship and blasts off alone.
Dumb Waiter, Walter Miller. (The author is best known for his classic post-apocalyptic novel A Canticle for Leibowitz) In this story, cities have become fully automated—municipal services are provided by robots linked to a central computer system. But when war erupted–featuring radiological attacks–some of the population was killed, and the others evacuated the cities. In the city that is the focus of the story, there are no people left, but “Central” and its subunits are working fine, doing what they were programmed to do many years earlier.
I was reminded of this story in 2013 by the behavior of the Swedish police during rampant rioting–issuing parking tickets to burned-out cars. My post is here.
The combination of human bureaucracy and not-too-intelligent automation is seems likely to lead to many events which are similar in kind if not (hopefully) in degree.
Year of Consent, Kendell Foster Crossen. This 1954 novel is set in the then-future year of 1990. The United States is still nominally a democracy, but the real power lies with the social engineers…sophisticated advertising & PR men…who use psychological methods to persuade people that they really want what they are supposed to want. The social engineers are aided in their tasks by a giant computer called Sociac (500,000 vacuum tubes! 860,000 relays!) and colloquially known as ‘Herbie.’ There are also ‘psychotherapy calculations’, devices which can help people overcome their ‘communication blocks’, ie, any reluctance to accept the promulgated opinions and worldview. I reviewed the book here.
The Golden Egg, Theodore Sturgeon. The protagonist is a being from a superintelligent race which resides many galaxies away. Over time, this race has solved all their problems and have reduced themselves to only brains, each contained an invulnerable egg-like shell and with control over powerful forces. Their problem is boredom.
There was nothing for them. They hung in small groups conversing of things unimaginable to us, or they lay on the plains of their world and lived within themselves until a few short aeons buried them, all uncaring, in rubble and rock. Some asked to be killed and were killed. Some were murdered by others because of quibblings in remote philosophic discussions. Some hurled themselves into the blue sun, starved for any new sensation, knowing they would find there an instant’s agony. Most simply vegetated. One came away.
That one is our protagonist. Traveling across the galaxies, he eventually comes to earth. He observes humans, and decides he would like to try being one–not a difficult task given his superhuman abilities. Noting that there are two sexes, he chooses to be one of the males. To recreate himself in human form, he must first set up his apparatus.
The machine had no switches, no indicators, no dials. It was built to do a certain job, and as soon as it was completed it began working. When the job was done it quit. It was the kind of machine whose perfection ruined the brain’s civilization, and has undoubtedly ruined others, and will most certainly ruin more.
He has chosen his physical form by using his telepathic abilities to enter the mind of a nearby woman and exploring her concept of the ideal male. This works out well for him–but he chooses his clothing and his manner of speech by modeling a tramp named Chauncey, and this works out much less-well. When he meets a woman named Ariadne, she admires his handsomeness but is turned off by those other attributes. So he probes he mind and adopts the manner of talking common among Ariadne and her female friends. Which, he finds, does not make a positive impression at all.
I found the entire story, together with a short review, here.
Appointment in Tomorrow, Fritz Leiber. Similar to Mechanical Answer, this story is about a Thinking Machine that is perceived as an oracle…but with a twist. When the machine is asked a question:
the question tape, like a New Year’s streamer tossed out a high window into the night, sped on its dark way along spinning rollers. Curling with an intricate aimlessness curiously like that of such a streamer, it tantalized the silvery fingers of a thousand relays, saucily evaded the glances of ten thousand electric eyes, impishly darted down a narrow black alleyway of memory banks, and, reaching the center of the cube, suddenly emerged into a small room where a suave fat man in shorts sat drinking beer.
He flipped the tape over to him with practiced finger, eyeing it as a stockbroker might have studied a ticker tape. He read the first question, closed his eyes and frowned for five seconds. Then with the staccato self-confidence of a hack writer, he began to tape out the answer.
The story can be found online in this collection.
There are a few more interesting stories in the anthologies, which I may write about at some point, but this is enough for a single post.