The most disturbing thing that happened to me in comics – non-violent, that is – occurred more than 30 years ago during the early days of the real First Comics. In fact, it didn’t even happen to me directly. It happened to then-associate editor Rick Oliver. That’s how disturbing it was to me.
We had published a story, damned if I remember what it was, about evil robots doing what evil robots do – murdering humans and generally raising a ruckus. That’s been a popular theme over the years, and if you think about it that’s just what Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates were talking about last August when they were talking about the dangers of artificial intelligence. As an aside, any time that kind of brain trust agrees on anything, I pay attention. But I digress.
A gentleman called us quite perturbed that we published such a story. Actually, perturbed isn’t quite the right phrase. Hysterical would be more accurate. He went apeshit because we did a story that violated (actually, ignored) Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. In case you’re not up on such things, those laws go exactly like this:
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
An admirable plot device, and Dr. Asimov held to it consistently for decades… in his fiction. Fiction. He never said it was science fact. Actually, he did say he wasn’t the guy who came up with it, that it was something writer/editor John C. Campbell said to him in December of 1940. On the other hand, Editor Campbell claimed that Author Asimov already had the Three Laws in his mind. But I digress. Again.
If this were an in-person conversation at a comic book or a science fiction convention, the caller would have been arrested and taken to a mental ward for observation. Seriously; he was that upset. When Rick told me about the call, I had newfound gratitude for Alexander Graham Bell.
Most of us understand that there are whack jobs out there (I’m sorry I don’t recall the politically correct phrase for “whack jobs”), and we’ve all seen more than a few hanging out around our Great Comic Book Donut Shop. This gentleman didn’t recognize that the Three Laws were merely a good idea and a great fictional plot device. Hell, he didn’t even recognize we had yet to create robots that are useful enough to need the Three Laws. Today, even drones have human controllers.
He desperately needed to get a life… and probably some lithium. But he represents a danger that we see in all of us who are passionate about our hobbies. You see this sort of thing at media conventions all the time – fans who are disappointed that actors aren’t as familiar with their work as they are. Plenty of times I’ve heard fans say that one actor or another was stupid (or worse) because he/she/it didn’t remember some minutia from a teevee series from many years past.
So. Why am I reminded about this now?
Simple. The fourth Republican debate was on teevee last night.