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Fascinated by Robot Dreams

Fascinated by Robot Dreams

Photographer:Fotograaf: Anne Roefs/ Simone Golob

Pascal van Gerven inspired by Isaac Asimov

“I think that it was the late Piet Vroon who inspired me to go into science,” Pascal van Gerven (44), assistant professor at the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences, e-mails from the North of Italia where he is staying at the moment. A little later – when he glances through the list of those who went before him in this series – he writes: “Ha ha, I see that my colleague Carolien Martijn has already mentioned him.”

Van Gerven does not want to be awkward, so in no time at all he comes up with an alternative: Isaac Asimov (1920-1992). “My own early hero,” says Van Gerven. This American writer was one of the greatest science fiction writers of the twentieth century. When it comes to science fiction, it is more the ‘science’ that appeals to Van Gerven, rather than the ‘fiction’. “I don’t like Star Wars or Star Trek. I am more into scientific analysis, the hypotheses, and the vision of the near future. Like 1984 by George Orwell.”

At the end of his secondary school days, Van Gerven read two of Asimov’s ‘robot novels’, of which the Robot Dreams collection stayed with him most. “I really looked up to that man back then, I really thought he was great.” A book about robots? “I admit that was a bit nerdy,” he laughs. “I was fascinated by artificial intelligence, the question whether you could make robots intelligent, whether you could imitate intelligence, and what it is that makes people intelligent. Also, what are the risks if you let robots control the world? Asimov had a fascinating way of write about that. He developed The Three Laws that robots from his stories had to abide by, the laws of robotics. Firstly, A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. Secondly, A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. Thirdly, A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. I find this very interesting: such simple rules to which there appear to be no exceptions possible.” Appear to be, because in Asimov’s stories things go wrong after all: robots that injure people, robots with defaults.

As a child, Van Gerven had everything in him to become a scientist: he spent hours looking through the microscope and leafing through encyclopaedias. “I always wanted to know things. I romanticised science, as if we lived in a world where scientists were able to do what they wanted, where they had carte blanche. I now know better.”
After grammar school, the young Van Gerven was facing the choice between chemistry or psychology. “Maybe Asimov brought me to this crossroads, he was trained as a biochemist.” Still, Asimov never did much in his profession as a biochemist. He found his passion in writing.

Van Gerven chose chemistry at the university in Nijmegen. But after two months he knew: “This is not for me. Too complicated.” For the rest of the year, he continued with biology in order to be able to start with psychology in the second year. Along the way, he specialised in experimental psychology, the theory of functions, in which the emphasis lies on the functions of the brain. Robots don’t come into it, but there is definitely some common ground with artificial intelligence.

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