Book Review: An engineering approach to fiction?

Diary of a Robot, by Lewis Jenkins, (available at Lulu) clearly bears the stamp that its author has a long history doing engineering in high-tech firms. The book revolves around the question: what is a “good” robot? If I am an engineer and want to make robots who are good, who will not become the monsters of so many science fiction stories, how do I write the specifications? Just a little thought shows that Isaac Asimov’s three prime specifications of robots are incomplete. Do we want a robot that obeys orders? (What if bad people tell it do do things? How does it evaluate who to obey?) Do we want one that does no harm? (Does it evaluate on its own what harm is? Does it take people’s word for what is harmful? The word of other robots?)

The most similar book I have read is Goedel, Escher, Bach, by Doug Hofstadter. Hofstadter’s book is nonfiction, but the books are similar in that both are filled with philosophical puzzles, and both revolve around the basic question of what it means to be human, and consequently, whether a truly intelligent machine could be made. Like Hofstadter’s book, Diary of a Robot is also very long. Goedel, Escher, Bach has been called the most popular unread book of the 1980’s. Some people may get bogged down in the many philosophical puzzles. But for those who find these questions fascinating, more is better (up to a point).

Jenkins’ book also has similarity to fiction by Walker Percy, who also was deeply concerned about what makes us human. Like Percy, Jenkins is a Christian, and his Christianity comes out in deep themes in the book. Both Percy’s books and this one are refreshing departures from the standard “Christian fiction” that gets marketed to the masses. In much “Christian fiction,” the characters may struggle to do the right thing, but they never seem to struggle with any of the deep questions of Christianity itself. Christian virtues and doctrine are sealed in a neat box. In Percy’s books, and in this one, deep philosophical questions about what we can even know play a major role in the plot.

While there is a crime-mystery plot with some good twists, the real core of Diary of a Robot is the journey of belief that the robot itself undergoes. It has been programmed with the search for Truth as its highest priority. This inevitably leads it to thinking about notions of sin (why do humans sometimes lie to me?) and God (what is the ultimate Truth?) This connects to the crime-mystery plot, as the reader may imagine: will this computer turn into HAL of 2001: A Space Odyssey, or one of the other robots in stories which conclude that they are superior to humans? Stephen Hawking and others have warned us recently of the dangers of thinking robots. This type of story goes back at least as far as Frankenstein, which was also full of self-reflection by a creation of humans. Jenkins’ book takes a more methodical, engineering-specification approach: can we define exactly what we would need to do to prevent a monster? (I won’t give any plot spoilers here, but will just mention: there’s a fun variation for part of this story: what if the robot is not a monster, but just really irritating? The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy also had some fun with this.)

The book in its present edition is a work in progress. Lewis Jenkins welcomes members of the CSS to give him feedback, so that he can issue a later revised edition. It’s quite readable in the present edition, although it is quite long.

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