Science fiction has been on my mind, of late, so you'll have to excuse this meandering article today. Call it Spring Fever, if you will. There are actually two subjects I'd like to muse upon here: private rockets, and robotic politicians.
Fly me to the moon
This week, an important milestone was achieved. A private rocket company launched a capsule with supplies for the International Space Station on board. This is the first of a series of tests in the attempt to eventually use the system to take astronauts up and down from the I.S.S. While SpaceX is the first to get this far, other private companies are also developing their own launch systems in competition to "privatize" this part of what N.A.S.A. does.
This is good news. The more companies building launch systems the better, as far as I'm concerned. But I don't base this on any solid analysis of cost/benefit ratios or the like, instead I base it solely on a life-long love of science fiction, especially science fiction from its golden age (or maybe "silver age" -- depends on how you slice that particular terminology). I'm talking about writers like Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Harry Harrison, and Ray Bradbury -- as well as too many short story authors to list. In other words, the stuff I grew up reading, even though it was already decades old for the most part. Call it the "Rocket Age."
Beginning in the 1930s and lasting through the end of the 1950s, it is amusing to read the predictions of the future these visionaries came up with. Some were incredibly accurate, but the authors also missed enormous advances that they could not even conceive of back then. Portable phones, for instance, figure in many stories reaching back to the 1940s (picture Dick Tracy's two-way wrist television, for example). Portable computers, however, were foreseen by virtually nobody -- computers were large, weighed several tons, and even rocket ships usually didn't carry computers onboard. Almost nobody foresaw the microchip revolution. Rocket pilots flew with their trusty sliderules at their sides -- few even foresaw the pocket calculator, in other words.
The biggest thing most of these writers got wrong, however, was not what they didn't foresee accurately, but what they foresaw which never (to coin a phrase) got off the ground. In a word, they were rocket-happy. Rockets, in virtually all the good sci-fi yarns of the era, had taken over from the airlines. Common phrases such as "the 8:10 mail rocket flew over, and John glanced at his watch and saw the folks at Houston Field were running two minutes late," or perhaps "I boarded the New York City Express Rocket in Los Angeles, and was on the ground at Idlewild Rocketport forty-seven minutes later." Rockets, rockets, and more rockets crisscrossed the skies of 1940s and 1950s science fiction. Even in the masterpiece movie version of 2001: A Space Odyssey the shuttle rocket arriving at the space station has "Pan Am" written on the side of it, and the space station itself has a private hotel chain inside.
Richard Branson would have fit right in to just about any of these stories. The best tale of a private company making the first trip to the moon (at least in my humble opinion) is the novella The Man Who Sold The Moon by Heinlein. Branson and the novel's protagonist "D. D. Harriman" could be brothers, to put it another way. Heinlein's first published book (Rocket Ship Galileo) was a story about high school boys tinkering in their own lab, being helped out by a wealthy relative, and converting a rocket to fly them to the moon (where, seeing as how it was published in 1947, they fought with Nazis).
So while I don't really know how this experiment with private rockets will turn out, I certainly will enjoy watching both SpaceX and what Richard Branson's been doing out in the desert. Because sooner or later, taking a private rocket to a private hotel to honeymoon in space will actually become a reality, and I for one am looking forward to that day.
More and more, I've been noticing political commenters from the snarky side of the blogosphere cleverly likening Mitt Romney to a robot. "He needs to upgrade his firmware" and other similar things are almost daily said, these days. But I keep wondering whether anyone will eventually figure out this story's been told before.
It was a tough job transforming Isaac Asimov's I, Robot into movie form, mostly because the book itself is nothing more than a collection of short stories. Most of the stories were left out of the movie script, which in some cases is a shame because they're so good.
One of these is titled "Evidence," and tells of a political candidate whom an opponent charges with being a robot. Not metaphorically, either.
In Asimov's world of robots, one company dominates the field of robotics, because of their patented "positronic brain" -- which is, essentially, one of the few times a writer of this era predicted a very small and very powerful computer. These supercomputers allow the robots to have the brainpower of a human, or at least a close enough approximation to easily pass a "Turing test."
The use of robots in industry is contentious (because, of course, it takes jobs away from humans), and therefore robots are only used off-planet in Asimov's book. Also, robots are metallic machines which don't look at all like an actual human.
But just because android-style robots are not constructed doesn't mean they can't be constructed, which is exactly what one politician charges has happened to build his opponent. The suspected robot has never been seen to eat or drink, which raises suspicions.
The story is an excellent read, because the question is never truly answered, to the public at large. The secret (is he or isn't he a robot) isn't known -- which sounds laughable until you contemplate the term "birther" in today's political world.
The question the story poses is an interesting one: would an Asimovian robot make a better politician than a human? Asimov's robot world was so influential in the genre because it posited something that is likely impossible for any computer programmer to achieve --each robot's brain was built to obey these Three Robotic Laws:
First Law -- A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second Law -- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third Law -- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
I'm not going to give away the ending to the story, because I heartily encourage everyone to read the book, if you haven't already done so. But while it is indeed likely a programmatic impossibility, it's a far more interesting question than teasing Romney for being so robotic. The story gets metaphysical, since the politician in question had been a district attorney and had prosecuted death penalty cases -- which gets into an argument about "the one" versus "the many," so the question isn't as simple as it sounds. Given Asimov's three laws, would a robot make a better politician than a human? I wonder....
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant