Original image: NASA/JPL-Caltech
With Folded Hands
Author: Jack Williamson
Originally aired: 15 April 1950
Plot synopsis: A manufacturer of domestic robots finds his business threatened by the appearance of a competitor selling much more advanced models, and when he discovers that these 'humanoids' are taking over all of humanity's functions and protecting people from all conceivable harm, he realizes that the service they provide may not be as benign as it first appears. Based on a short story first published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine, in July 1947; and later in Jack Williamson's short-story collection The Pandora Effect, in 1969.
Favourite line: 'At your service.'
Review: In part, this episode deals with a fairly familiar science-fiction theme - that computers and robots may one day render human beings obsolete - which is interesting enough, but hardly groundbreaking. However, what raises the episode above the ordinary is the way in which the robots in the story interpret their injunction to guard humans from harm. As such, the episode can be viewed as an alternative perspective on ideas explored in the robot stories of Isaac Asimov - the master of the robot story genre - as it gives some of the key notions for which Asimov was famous a very different spin. Asimov worked hard to rid science fiction of simplistic tales in which robots feature as clanking, murderous monsters, by having hardwired into them his so-called 'Three Laws of Robotics', the first of which prohibits robots from injuring human beings or through inaction allowing humans to come to harm. In this story, the robots are programmed with a similar guiding principle, termed the Prime Directive, which likewise enjoins robots not to allow humans to come to harm (the influence of Asimov on the depiction of robots and computers in the science fiction of the era can be seen by the fact that many other authors invoked or referenced such constraining laws - as, for example, in three stories adapted by X Minus One, The Lifeboat Mutiny, Lulu and The Seventh Order). However, whereas in Asimov's stories the idea of harm is generally interpreted in a relatively narrow way, as meaning clear and immediate physical harm - permitting him to offer a positive, optimistic view of robots' role in humanity's future - in this story, a very different way of looking at it is offered. Thus, harm is interpreted by the robots in a much wider sense, to encompass a whole range of possible dangers - for example, they disallow the protagonist from drinking alcohol since this is damaging to his health, his son from playing physical sports because of the risks involved, and the family from keeping painkillers in the house because they might be used to commit suicide. In other words, whereas the actions of Asimov's robots in safeguarding humans are usually portrayed as benevolent, in this story, the robots' efforts purportedly to help people - summed up in their sinister mantra of 'At your service' - is seen as constituting a type of authoritarian paternalism. In this way, the story can be read as presenting a warning to liberal societies against creeping social regulation - that it may not be straightforward oppression that is the main threat they face, but seemingly well-meaning attempts to protect people from themselves that will ultimately lead to the demise of individual liberty. In truth, the plot itself is nothing special, but the ideas contained in this episode are intriguing and thought-provoking. (Another story that deals with the theme of a robot establishing a paternalistic despotism over humans is the X Minus One episode The Iron Chancellor, though this offers a more humorous take on the idea.)
Rating: * * * *
[Other adaptations: Radio - Future Tense (1974)]