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Second Foundation

Second Foundation is the title of the third part of the Foundation trilogy (1942-53) by Isaac Asimov. The Second Foundation is a kind of Council of Wise, assigned to direct the development of a new Galactic Empire in the best possible way.

The first part, Foundation, describes how a new science, psychohistory, discovers that the existing Galactic Empire is doomed to fall. Harry Seldon, the discoverer of psychohistory, designs a plan to shorten the primitive and barbaric period that will follow the collapse from 30,000 to 1000 years. He manages to manipulate the emperor into setting up a planet on the edge of the Galactic Empire as a seed for a new galactic empire. This new empire is called (first) Foundation. The intention is that this Foundation will lead to a Second Empire. In the second part, Foundation and Empire, Foundation is expanding and comes into conflict with the still existing old empire. Then, a serious disruption of the plan comes from an unexpected corner. To correct that, the secret Second Foundation must intervene. This makes her effect known. In the third part, Second Foundation, this must be undone.

The development of the Foundation was calculated on the basis of psychohistory, and the Second Foundation was intended to follow this development and adjust it if necessary. Psychohistory is based on calculating reactions from large groups on events and developments, especially on those moments when those reactions can give a critical push to the further development of history. These calculations produce probabilities for the further development. An important condition for psychohistory is that people remain unaware of the fact that their collective reactions are calculated. The moment they start taking that into account, psychohistory becomes impossible. Nevertheless, at the start of the Foundation, a kind of notification of god-like existence was given to provide a myth, a form of self-confidence of unknowable greatness. At critical moments in a kind of temple (vault) a holographic image of Harry Seldon strengthens this by commenting on an important step that has just taken place, thus proving that the Second Foundation was right. Any knowledge of the Second Foundation beyond its (possible) existence somewhere threatens the plan.

Second Foundation operates in secrecy, its location unknown. After the deviation in the plan, they are forced to intervene directly and they have calculated that a number of people will come up with the idea that they really exist and what their activity is. They must come up with a method to undo that revelation. “Second Foundation” describes the inventive solution for that problem.

The working method , the meritocratic organization, the anonymity, and the humble and serving attitude of the Second Foundation set an example how an elite should rule. To illustrate this, some parts of the conversation between the leader, “first speaker”, and a candidate psycho-historian:

“This is the Prime Radiant” The First Speaker’s hand hovered gently over the black, shining cube in the middle of the desk. It was featureless, there was nothing to see.

… with a gradually livening flush, the two long walls of the room glowed to life. First, a pearly white, unrelieved, then a trace of faint darkness here and there, and finally, the fine neatly printed equations in black, with an occasional red hairline that wavered through the darker forest like a staggering rillet. …

“Before you obtain your Speakerhood,” continued the First Speaker, “you yourself will have to make an original contribution to the Plan.” …  “This,” he said, “is mine.”  The whole wall seemed to whirl down upon him. A fine red line encircled two forking arrows and included six square feet of deductions along each path. Between the two were a series of equations in red.  “It does not,” said the Speaker, “seem to be much”.

 “How is a change made?” – “Through the agency of the Radiant. You will find in your own case, for instance, that your mathematics will be checked rigorously by five different boards; and that you will be required to defend it against a concerted and merciless attack. … If it passes it … the contribution will be added to the Plan. 

 “The Prime Radiant can be adjusted to your mind, and all corrections and additions can be made through mental rapport. There will be nothing to indicate that the correction or addition is yours. In all the history of the Plan there has been no personalization. It is rather a creation of all of us together.”

The trilogy is said to be based on the downfall of the Roman Empire.

From 1981 on, Asimov has written various additional books, making a connection with his writing about robots. Almost all of these are about the problems that occur in the interaction between human and robot. Culminating in the question of how and if you really can make a distinction between them. Here too, Asimov is a class of its own in this genre. In his stories, robots develop from fairly simple metal types through humanoids that cannot be distinguished from people, to very intelligent beings with unprecedented forces and possibilities. This later development coincides with the introduction of robots into the Foundation universe. These unprecedented capabilities, which in lighter form already manifest themselves in Second Foundation in humans, draw the stories more towards a space opera, where a single individual saves humanity. This tendency was present in his previous writings, but was kept in balance in the earlier stories by sociological, anthropological and psychological observations and turns. This points to AI and the “Singularity”, an actual development.

His robot stories and novels are composed around some simple moral “robot values” in the form of the laws that are programmed as basis for the behavior of robots:

  1. A robot may not injure a person or, by inactivity, allow a person to be damaged.
  2. A robot must follow the orders of people, except when they are contrary to the first law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as they are not contrary to the first or second law.

These are very inventive compositions on this essentially simple theme. Dilemmas robots cannot yet solve at that stage are presented, causing malfunction. Does the self-managing car have to brake or steer away from a little girl suddenly crossing the street, endangering or jeopardizing passengers or oncoming cars? Those are the kind of ultimately moral decisions that the software of a robot should be able to solve if a passenger will be able to read a newspaper in the backseat. This should not lead to the car driving systematically too slow or braking unnecessary. The final responsibility for crossing the street lies with the parents of the girl, and this sets limits for the human driver for expected behavior, and these limits should apply to robots too. Robots have to develop a more complex consciousness to handle this.

His vision of robots is gaining relevance; again, he shows himself a true visionary by the way in which he sees the decision process – robotic and human – as a collision of value potentialities where the outcome is not programmable in advance. In recent publications about robots the insights of Asimov are dismissed as irrelevant. A technocratic deviation.

Asimov later added the 0th law:

  1. A robot may not harm humanity or, through inactivity, allow humanity to be damaged.

This 0th law makes more complex, social considerations possible.

This essay was written in Dutch in 2011, edited in 2015 and translated in English and revised in 2023.

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