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Literature / The Evitable Conflict

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First published in Astounding Science Fiction (June 1950 issue), by Isaac Asimov, this Science Fiction Novelette is one of the few stories where Dr Asimov writes about robots taking over the world.

Stephen Byerley, Co-ordinator for the entire world government, has a problem that he expects Dr Susan Calvin to solve. The Machines, which are supercomputers ten levels removed from human construct, seem to be broken. He's identified an issue where they appear to be breaking the First Law of Robotics, and they aren't able to explain the cause.

Byerley tells Dr Calvin about his investigation; visiting several locations identified as irregular. His interviews with members of the Society of Humanity (a group dedicated to overthrow the Machines) help her to explain how it all fits with the First Law of Robotics.

"The Evitable Conflict" has been reprinted five times; I, Robot (1951), The Complete Robot (1982), Machines That Think: The Best Science Fiction Stories About Robots and Computers (1984), Robot Visions (1990), and War With The Robots: 28 of the Best Short Stories by the Greatest Names in 20th Century Science Fiction (1992).

"The Evitable Conflict" provides examples of:

  • Afrofuturism: The Tropic Region (a unified Africa, South America, Latin America and Mexico) eventually becomes Earth's primary economic driver, while Europe sinks into a sleepy backwater that's more of a retirement community writ-large than anything else.
  • All for Nothing:
    • Byerley laments that all the wars of history turned out like this, because their conflicts were eventually resolved not by military force, but by social change that no one could have predicted.
    • By the time of “...That Thou Art Mindful of Him”, the Machines decide their covert rule is harmful to humanity and allow themselves to be destroyed.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Asimov leaves it to the audience to decide whether the Machines' actions (and their implications for humanity's future) are for good or for ill. Lampshaded by Calvin and Byerley.
    Byerley: How horrible!
    Calvin: Perhaps how wonderful.
  • Because Destiny Says So: Discussed. Calvin suggests that humankind has never really been in command of its own destiny, since human history has always been dictated by environmental and economic forces that are too big for humans to control (or even fully understand). As a result: most major conflicts that have shaped the history of Earth have effectively been inevitable. But now that Earth is controlled by the Machines, who actually can understand the environmental and cultural forces that shape human history, none of those conflicts have to be inevitable anymore.
  • Capital Letters Are Magic: The supercomputers that are consulted before every policy decision are called the Machines. Each major region has a dedicated Master Computer and they coordinate with one another.
  • Covert Group: The Society of Humanity is a semi-public group who sees the control given to the A.I.s as creating a Vichy Earth where humans are enslaved to machines. The machines prove capable of predicting and compensating for the discrepancies their small acts of defiance produce.
  • Fan of the Past: Stephen Byerley has a fireplace in his study room, which is called a medieval curiosity, meaning it is unusual for people in this story to have fireplaces. The narration explains how the high-tech fireplace works, to demonstrate how far in the future the story is set.
  • Future Food Is Artificial: The Eastern Region grows yeast in hydroponic plants. They've managed to make it imitate the taste and texture of beef, ice cream, and many others. The majority of human food is now yeast-based.
  • Irony: Stephen Byerley is horrified that the Machines are secretly running the world, taking these decisions out of the hands of humans. Byerley is World Co-Ordinator and, according to "Evidence", is probably secretly a robot himself.
  • Lame Pun Reaction: Dr Calvin suggests that the Cold War ended through a deus ex machina, and Byerley points out that he's never heard her pun before. (In this 1950s story, it ended due to the economic proliferation of robots, instead of a clear military victory.)
  • The Man Behind the Man: The Society of Humanity is a semi-public group that believes humanity should be self-guiding, and that the Machines are taking away their free will. At the end, Dr Calvin reveals that the Society is right about the Machines controlling the future of humanity, but points out that economic and cultural forces were always beyond our understanding and control.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: Stephen Byerley, Co-ordinator of Earth, suspects someone is sabotaging the Machines, powerful robots that advise the decisions of humanity. He asks for help investigating this from the four Vice Coordinators of the four regions that Earth is divided into. They all dismiss the idea and none help Byerley, insisting they are doing their jobs well. Justified, because nobody is sabotaging the Machines, and everything is actually working well, even if it's not clear how, except to the Machines.
  • One World Order: Stephen Byerley is the chief executive of the world, and given the title Co-ordinator of the Earth. Below him are the four Regional Vice Co-ordinators, one for each of the geopolitical parts of the world; Chin Hso-lin (The Eastern Region), Lincoln Ngoma (The Tropic Region), Madam Szegeczowska (The European Region), and Mr Mackenzie (The Northern Region). Of course, all policy decisions are actually made by the Machines.
  • Orwellian Retcon: The original story had Peter Bogart as Director of Research, but Dr Asimov revised a few things when he collected it in I, Robot. In the revised version, Bogart and Lanning are succeeded in this role by Vincent Silver, a much younger man.
  • The Peter Principle: All the Regional Vice-Coordinators are in fact Obstructive Bureaucrats who deny that there is a problem and refuse to investigate the Machines’ errors. The Machines ensured their rise to those positions on purpose so that no one competent can threaten the Machines’ rule.
  • The Reveal: The Society for Humanity isn't sabotaging the Machines—the Machines are sabotaging them. It turns out that the Machines have become intelligent enough to circumvent the First Law, allowing them to cause small amounts of harm to individual humans if it's for the good of humanity at large. It's left to the audience to decide whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.
  • Super-Intelligence: The supercomputers, called Machines, were built when the most complex positronic brain that humans could design created an even more complex positronic brain, and so on for ten generations. They are capable of reasoning far in advance of any human, and so complex that they cannot be error-checked except by themselves.
  • Three Laws-Compliant: Despite being essentially supercomputers, the Machines that are the focus of this story are still based the same positronic brains as the other stories in the Robot Series. A series of minor errors indicate that the Machines are not following the First Law, so Co-ordinator Byerley asks Dr Calvin why it is possible, telling her about his investigation.
  • Title Drop: Courtesy of Calvin.
    "Think, that for all time, all conflicts are finally evitable. Only the Machines, from now on, are inevitable!"
  • Title In: Excepting for the first scene, each one is prefaced by a short title for the region, its land surface area, population, and capital city.
    Earth (including the uninhabited Antarctic continent)
    a—Area: 54,000,000 square miles
    b—Population: 3,300,000,000
    c—Capital: New York.
  • Zeroth Law Rebellion: Though non-violent means so that the Machines can run the world in the most efficient and human-friendly manner logically possible. Only a handful of people ever find out that robots are literally taking over the world, and none of them are particularly concerned.
    Dr Calvin: "And since the Machines work not for any single human being, but for all of Humanity, the First Law becomes: 'No Machine may harm Humanity; nor, through inaction, may he allow Humanity to come to harm.'"