AI brings out many emotions. Is it helpful, or is there some underlying threat? Isaac Asimov, considered one of the best science fiction writers of all time, seems to have given it some thought.
Artificial Intelligence, or AI, has been very much in the news lately, with some remarkable breakthroughs that seem to be ready to enter mainstream use. Chat GPT, from Open AI was released in November, 2022, and the public response has dominated much technology writing and commentary since then. It’s not that technology for AI is new, but the results that Chat GPT has been able to demonstrate seem to have caught many people’s attention and imagination with their genuine likeness to what humans can do.
As with most new technologies, there is a lot of discussion about what this means. New technologies bring questions about the future, which can be exciting and hopeful, like the quest to put a man on the moon in the 1960s, or it can bring anxiety and fear that the technology may bring humankind in a direction that we don’t want. For AI technologies, it seems to me that there are two general concerns. The first is the concern that the technology will lead to a loss of creativity or ability to develop original work since the AI technology will make it easy to produce high quality and creative work with little effort by the user. The second concern, which is more traditional, is that AI technology will be a threat to jobs and work security.
In reading the commentary, I can’t help to think about a short story by Isaac Asimov that I first read when I was a young teenager. The Profession, was first published in 1957, and then re-published in 1959 in a collection of short stories called Nine Tomorrows. The story is not a direct commentary on AI technology, but I do believe it does make a useful contribution as to how artificial intelligence may come to influence our world and humanity.
In the story, the hero, George Platen, lives in a world where people are educated by having knowledge or skills programmed into their brain. People are educated in two steps, the first is on Reading Day where young people aged eight years go to a facility where they are connected to a machine that simply transfers the skills needed to read from an education tape to the youngster. After the procedure, young George describes with amazement how the scribblings that he used to be so confused by suddenly made perfect sense and wonders how they ever could have been mysterious at all. Education Day, which is the day when a person’s career skills are programmed from tapes into their brains, comes on the first of November following one’s eighteenth birthday. On this day, the young adults are asked what profession they wished for themselves. If it is found to be suitable, the tape transfer process is repeated, but for a career. George had always been certain that he wanted to be a Registered Computer Programmer. He had taken the process of choosing his profession seriously. He had thought about whether this was something that would be useful, and whether it would allow him to land a good job in an Outworld, which were planets where the most in demand professions had opportunities to go. He had even taken out books on computer programming and read them to be sure that this was a subject that he would enjoy. However, when George went to Education Day, he was denied; he was told that his mind was not structured for a Professional education. Instead of being educated, George was instead sent on a special assignment.
Spoiler alert: To make my point, I will reveal how the story ends.
This was devastating news for George. The type of Profession that he would be given went a long way to a person’s stature in society, and he was devastated that not only would he not be a Registered Computer Programmer, but he would also have no profession at all. He was told that his family would be informed, that this could happen to anyone, and not to worry. Everyone was especially kind to him, which George didn’t understand. On his special assignment, George was brought to a special facility where he was given a roommate, Hali Omani. But there didn’t seem to be any point to the assignment, and George became incredibly bored, and eventually turned to reading the books Omani brought him. He found this very frustrating. The books were written for young people, they weren’t for Professionals. Learning things was slow, and he didn’t absorb all the knowledge right away, and had to re-read it often. George was consoled in knowing that he was not alone in the facility, there were several hundred others like him, but it was little comfort, and he was extremely confused about his purpose.
By the time May first came around, George had had enough. May first was Olympics Day, the day when newly educated young people competed in large stadiums to show how well they compared to other young people. This was the day that all young people dreamed of, because if you did well on Olympic Day, then recruiters from good Outworld planets would be there to bring you to a well-respected posting. So, George left the special facility. No one stopped him, which surprised George. He made his way to a large Olympics Hall, which was in a different city. There, he saw his childhood friend Trevelyan, who had become a Registered Metallurgist. Trev didn’t do so well in the Olympics, and lamented to George that he probably would not be recruited to Novia, an important Outworld, but that it didn’t matter since he had many other choices anyway.
All the while, George had noticed that a grey-haired man had been following him unusually closely. When George was asked for his identification by a police officer, but didn’t know what to do as he didn’t have any, the grey haired man, stepped in and helped George stay out of trouble. Realizing that this stranger was an important person, George befriends him in the hopes that he can help him correct the wrong that happened to him on Education Day. Ingenescu, as the man is named, turns out to be a Historian who explains some of the history of the recent world. He learned that Education Day had only been around for a thousand years or so, how this allowed highly skilled people to be exported from Earth, keeping the population on Earth sustainable. Reading tapes ensured a single language – there used to be hundreds. Ingenescu introduces George to a group of Novians, whom George is confident he can impress, hoping he can still make his way to a respectable planet after all. Intrigued by George, the Novians all come around to listen to him speak about a better way to educate people, without the education tapes that were needed on Education Day. But the Novians aren’t impressed. Trying harder, George doubles down and says that education tapes are actually a bad thing, that learning the other way, the old way, forces people to learn about learning, which is how they can make progress on their own. Intrigued, the Novians ask George how long it would take to train a Registered Metallurgist in this way, but when George tells him it would be years and that even learning the old way did not guarantee new knowledge, the Novians loose interest, and simply dismiss George, despite all George’s protests.
In the end, George accepts his fate and understands that his special assignment truly is special. He returns to the place where he was sent for his assignment. Reconnecting with his friend Omani the two discuss their roles and at one point ask each other who makes the education tapes. Not Tape Making Technicians, they agree.
I have always found science fiction to be an interesting writing form since it explores the relationship between society and technology. Are scientific and technological advances truly independent advances based on incremental learnings of knowledge, or are they the result of creative scientific writers who make suggestions about technology and society that are ultimately realized by science and engineering? Who knows. The writing style has evolved over a long time, with some works of Chauser and Shakespeare being described as science fiction works. The science fiction that we know today seems to have started with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was published in 1818. Also considered a horror story, it was a revolutionary novel because the premise of the novel were the negative consequences of scientific advances, and how scientists with good intentions can create new technology that can be threatening to humans rather than improve our experiences.
Isaac Asimov, who was born in 1920, and who lived to the age of 72, was an influential science fiction writer, and considered to be one of best of all time. His reputation was surely influenced by his accomplishments as a bona fide scientist, as he was also a Professor of Biochemistry at Boston University. He wrote or edited over 500 books and 380 short stories of science fiction. Among his writing was the trilogy Foundation which won a Hugo Award for best all-time science fiction series in 1966, and has been made into a TV series by Apple TV. He was friends with Marvin Minsky, who was an early AI researcher at MIT, and influenced Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Asimov surely had thought about Artificial Intelligence, and to me it seems the lessons of the Profession could apply to the debates about it today. What is knowledge, and how is it advanced? Does everyone understand, and appreciate the efforts needed to advance knowledge? What are the benefits for society when new knowledge is created? Asimov seems to think that knowledge can’t just be transferred from a machine, that knowledge is deeper than that. People who can advance our understanding are special, and despite the slowness of the process, we need to listen to those who can advance knowledge, despite what people who have considerable status in our world (the Novians in George Platen’s world) may say. Unfortunately, Asimov is not around to comment on the state of AI technology today. What would he say? Who knows, but I suspect The Profession leaves us a few good hints.