Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Movie Review: I, Robot

I remember when I, Robot came out, and the awful reviews about how it was not faithful to the source material. But while it is a different story, I find it to be in the spirit of the Asimov stories. (I don't tend to care about the special effects as much as plot.)

The focus of the Asimov stories is to take the world where robots exist and are bound by the Three Laws. And the world is full of robot who are created to serve people, and have this higher order understanding that they need to protect humans. But then something happens that seems like a paradox and the protagonist needs to figure out how it happened, within the confine of the Three Laws.

And this movie follows one of those themes. That a robot is able to take the three laws and derive the Zeroth Law from them. And then the inevitable conclusion, that people inflict so much harm on each other, the best way to protect humans is to control them, and those that could cause harm are destroyed to better protect humans. After this, the action and special effects are details.

The parallel is not unquestioned reliance on technology. The parallel is unquestioned reliance on authority to enable our protection. It is a world where we are given rules to protect us from our own good, and we are asked to trust in authority. Or, as a friend of mine in grad school said, "we have to trust that authority knows things we don't and are making the right choices" (obviously, given my career path that has included such things as speaking truth to power, I don't follow that philosophy)

The alternative, I would contend, is to ensure that people are provided the means to make proper choices. Not the choices passed on to them by the powerful (corporations, government), but choices where the individuals are given the information and the means that make their own. Does it mean anarchy? No, because anarchy inevitably breaks down to rule by the strong, because the weak become forced to seek the protections of the strong for their own protection. Full libertarianism has the same effect, the strong are left with no restraints. We are better off with the ideas of the Federalist Papers, where interest contends with interest, whether those interests are economic, political, regional, ethnic, or other grouping.

But what it leaves is what the Coase Theorem suggests, that the proper role of government is to allow for the reduction of transaction costs, so that the market will by market forces flow toward the most utility. That means that ways are found to reduce the effects of market power and that information is allowed to flow to where it is needed (e.g. regulations). And the results of choices are allowed to occur.
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