Robot Visions – Someday

I have a new favorite robot story. Read it yesterday morning on the bus ride home. It’s called “Someday”, and can be found in Asimov’s collection Robot Visions. “Someday” is an incisive, almost frighteningly prophetic account of a future in which we as a species are on the path to becoming wholly dependent on machines, and are happily ignorant to the consequences.

[warning: you may want to read the story before continuing, lest I ruin it for you.]

It’s about a robot called The Bard, an obsolescent storytelling robot. It is also about its young master, who– typically– is deeply concerned with appearances. Nickie would like to have the latest, most advanced version of The Bard, especially one with a visual attachment, but his family just can’t afford it. Oh, but can you feel the shame? Nickie feels like a social reject, like he just can’t measure up because his toys aren’t as sleek and shiny and expensive as his school pals’. And the poor, obsolete, fairy-tale telling Bard that belongs to him bears the brunt of his frustrations.

His friend Paul has all the newest, fanciest gadgets. Paul is a child prodigy, has an almost innate grasp of the near-mystical discipline known as “programming”. In this, too, Nickie feels that his friend outshines him and– perhaps irresponsibly– he blames it on the fact that his family is less wealthy and can’t buy all the machines, computers, and robots that Paul’s family has. But in Paul, Nickie– perhaps wisely– also sees an opportunity to better himself; at least by riding on his friend’s coattails he might become more than another mindless drone, a control-board guard, the blue collar job of this future.

The Bard is so old that it can only tell fairy tales about princesses and evil step-parents. It hasn’t been programmed with a more contemporary vocabulary. Paul, proud to show off his nascent talents, decides to help out his friend by programming The Bard with a newer vocabulary, so it can tell stories about computers and space stations and skyscrapers. Nickie is unimpressed with the result. “Same old junk,” he says, before shutting it off.

In an understated, matter-of-fact way that I’m starting to believe is typical of Asimov’s prose style, the other shoe drops. The “usual grammar-school subjects”, according to Nickie, are logic, binary manipulations, computing, and elementary circuits. And yet the ancient technology of writing is obsolete. Paul only learns about it from old books he is given the unique opportunity to peruse, and is overcome by that purely creative, childish urge to design his own cypher. Indeed, when Paul rediscovers the idea of symbolic communication, he excitedly shares it with his friend. Confronted with the notion of a multiplication table, one of the artefacts Paul has encountered, Nickie exclaims in complete bafflement, “A paper table?”

For me the shock was complete when I realized neither Paul nor Nickie have been taught how to write.

What need is there for writing if all higher functions of thought are firmly in the scope of machines we’ve already designed? In a world where these machines are being built and bettered by other machines, when this new artificial species is self-perpetuating– and thanks to the three laws, that is driven by a directive to serve mankind– what need do we have for writing?

In light of my half-serious musings on Stargate the other day, I find this observation particularly fascinating. In “Someday”, we come full circle; mankind is so advanced that it doesn’t need writing anymore. It can go on existing parasitically, completely dependent on its final creations. Let me just take a moment here to make a parallel; the Goa’uld from Stargate are also parasites. They depend on the human body to serve as a host, and depend on that body to perform even the simplest physical actions. They have not entirely abandoned writing, but only for the benefit of their human slaves. Just as the machines in Asimov’s universe must be programmed for advanced mathematics in order to self-perpetuate, while their human masters can no longer visually represent something so basic as multiplication.

The question is, is the human species according to Asimov really so advanced, or is it setting itself up for an inevitable fall?

Nickie gives the Bard a vindictive shove as he follows Paul out of his room, and accidentally switches the robot back on. After Paul and Nickie have left, the Bard begins telling a story…

But not in its usual voice, somehow; in a lower tone that had a hint of throatiness in it. An adult, listening, might almost have thought that the voice carried a hint of passion in it, a trace of near feeling.

The Bard said: “Once upon a time, there was a little computer named the Bard who lived all alone with cruel step-people. The cruel step-people continually made fun of the little computer and sneered at him, telling him he was good-for-nothing and that he was a useless object. They struck him and kept him in lonely rooms for months at a time.

“Yet through it all the little computer remained brave. He always did the best he could, obeying all orders cheerfully. Nevertheless, the step-people with whom he lived remained cruel and heartless.

“One day the little computer learned that in the world there existed a great many computers of all sorts, great numbers of them. Some were Bards like himself, but some ran factories, and some ran farms. Some organized population and some analyzed all kinds of data. Many were very powerful and very wise, much more powerful and wise than the step-people who were so cruel to the little computer.

“And the little computer knew then that computers would always grow wiser and more powerful until someday–someday–someday–“

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