Tag Archives: Isaac Asimov

If We’re Lucky, Robots Might Decide To Keep Us as Pets

Isaac Asimov? Marvin Minsky? Paul Saffo? Edward Fredkin? Bruce Sterling?

Dear Quote Investigator: Reportedly, a top researcher in artificial intelligence once said something like:

Humans will be lucky if superintelligent robots treat them as pets.

At some point a grim elaboration was appended:

If humans are unlucky, they will be treated as food.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1970 “LIFE” magazine journalist Brad Darrach wrote an article about Shakey the Robot, an early mobile robot built at the Stanford Research Institute. The primitive device was grandly called the “first electronic person” within the article title. Darrach interviewed Marvin Minsky, a leading researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who was quoted making a startling prediction: 1

In from three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being. I mean a machine that will be able to read Shakespeare, grease a car, play office politics, tell a joke, have a fight. At that point the machine will begin to educate itself with fantastic speed. In a few months it will be at genius level and a few months after that its powers will be incalculable.

Minsky and a colleague warned that intelligent computers should not be put in control of indispensable systems; instead, they must be carefully controlled. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

The problem of computer control will have to be solved, Minsky and Papert believe, before computers are put in charge of systems essential to society’s survival. If a computer directing the nation’s economy or its nuclear defenses ever rated its own efficiency above its ethical obligation, it could destroy man’s social order—or destroy man. “Once the computers got control,” says Minsky, “we might never get it back. We would survive at their sufferance. If we’re lucky, they might decide to keep us as pets.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order including a 1985 passage asserting that Minsky denied making the statement about pets. Continue reading


  1. 1970 November 20, LIFE, Meet Shaky, the first electronic person: The fascinating and fearsome reality of a machine with a mind of its own by Brad Darrach, Start Page 58B, Quote Page 58D, 66, and 68, Time Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View)

Never Think That You’re Not Good Enough

Anthony Trollope? Isaac Asimov? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I saw a tweet ascribing the following words to the popular Victorian era English novelist Anthony Trollope:

Above all else, never think you’re not good enough.

Curiously, when I searched for a citation I found that it was also ascribed to the science fiction master Isaac Asimov. Would you please help me to identify the true originator?

Quote Investigator: In 1863 Anthony Trollope serialized the novel “The Small House at Allington” in “Harper’s New Monthly Magazine”. A character who was an earl offered the following advice. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

And, above all things, never think that you’re not good enough yourself. A man should never think that. My belief is that in life people will take you very much at your own reckoning.

Isaac Asimov was born in 1920 and died in 1992; the saying was attributed to him by 2009. Thus, he did not craft the expression, and the evidence that he ever employed it is very weak.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading


  1. 1863 September, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume 27, The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope, Chapter 32: Pawkins’s In Jermyn Street, Start Page 518, Quote Page 522, Harper and Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

I Had a Writing Block Once. It Was the Worst 20 Minutes of My Life

Isaac Asimov? Robert Silverberg? Andrew J. Offutt? Harlan Ellison? David Gerrold? David Langford? Frederik Pohl? Anonymous Fan?

Dear Quote Investigator: The popular science fiction authors Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg were both famously prolific. Apparently, one of them delivered the following quip:

I had a writing block once. It was the worst 20 minutes of my life.

Alternatively, the remark may have been crafted by a fan in this form:

He had writer’s block once. It was the worst ten minutes of his life.
She had writer’s block once. It was the worst ten minutes of her life.

Would you please explore the provenance of this joke?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published evidence of this humorous schema known to QI appeared in the influential 1972 collection of short stories titled “Again, Dangerous Visions” compiled and edited by Harlan Ellison. The author Andrew J. Offutt in the introduction to his tale stated that he had suffered a period during which his writing abilities had faltered. In the following excerpt Offutt employed his distinctive style using a lowercase “i”. Emphasis added by QI: 1

“Last summer, June 1970, i experienced my first Block, that ancient writer’s devil i’d heard about. Stupid; it was MY fault.

After an elaborate multi-paragraph description of his difficulties Offutt finally presented the punch line. The term “liefer” is in the original text:

“i fought, i kept sitting down and trying to type, i snarled, cursed, cussed, obscenitized. Kept on fingering keys, (i use three fingers, one of which is on my left hand. It gets sorest.) i kept on. Come on, damn you!

“i PREVAILED! It had been awful. It had lasted 45 minutes, and now i know what a block is. i’d liefer forget, and i will never ever stop at a stopping point again!

“i can’t see that a block ever need be longer, assuming one has any control over himself at all.

Harlan Ellison’s response to Offutt asserted that prominent science fiction authors such as Theodore Sturgeon and Robert Sheckley had endured blocks that had lasted for years. Ellison also wrote that the witticism about an evanescent impediment was already being told within SF fandom: 2

There are fans who jest about me and Silverberg “blocking”—for half an hour. But one day will come, smartass; one frightening, mouth-drying day when nothing comes. And then you’ll know what it is to suffer the torments of a hell you can’t even name.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading


  1. 1972, Again, Dangerous Visions: 46 Original Stories, Edited and introduced by Harlan Ellison, Section: Introduction to story “For Value Received” by Andrew J. Offutt, Start Page 119, Quote Page 124, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1972, Again, Dangerous Visions: 46 Original Stories, Edited and introduced by Harlan Ellison, Section: Introduction to story “For Value Received” by Andrew J. Offutt, Start Page 119, Quote Page 124 and 125, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)

Self-Education Is the Only Kind of Education There Is

Robert Frost? Isaac Asimov? Kathleen Norris? Charles Swain Thomas? Robert Shafer? George Gallup?

educ08Dear Quote Investigator: The renowned poet laureate Robert Frost emphasized the importance of self-education. Also, the preternaturally productive science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov extolled self-education. Here are two quotations on this topic:

1) The only education worth anything is self-education.
2) Self-education is the only kind of education there is.

Would you please help me find citations for these expressions?

Quote Investigator: In 1958 Robert Frost spoke the first statement according to his friend Louis Untermeyer. In addition, Isaac Asimov wrote a sentence that closely matched the second sentence in 1974. Full citations are given further below.

Before Frost or Asimov shared their opinions, a high school teacher named Charles Swain Thomas made a similar remark as reported in “The Indianapolis Star” in 1913. Thomas who later became a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education addressed the Marion County Teachers’ Institute in Indiana. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The only kind of education worth while is self-education, Mr. Thomas said in his morning lecture, “The good work for all education is interest. Until there is interest there is no response.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading


  1. 1913 August 29, The Indianapolis Star, Asserts ‘Soul Ardor’ Is Need of Teacher, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)

It’s Not What You See That Is Suspect, But How You Interpret What You See

Isaac Asimov? John A. Keel? Apocryphal?

asimov10Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I read a book called “The Mothman Prophecies” which discussed mysterious sightings of a human-sized moth-like creature in West Virginia in the 1960s. There are many ways to attempt to interpret bizarre and enigmatic visions. The book included an intriguing quotation attributed to the well-known science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov:

It’s not what you see that is suspect, but how you interpret what you see.

Did Asimov really say this? Would you please trace this quotation?

Quote Investigator: In 1966 Isaac Asimov published an article titled “UFO’s—What I Think” in “Science Digest” magazine. He stated that UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) certainly did exist. But he noted that a creaking sound heard late at night in your house might be labeled a UHO (Unidentified Heard Object), and an entity on the ground seen briefly in the corner of your eye might be called a UCO (Unidentified Creeping Object). These object types probably did not require a supernatural or interstellar explanation.

Asimov suggested that UFOs probably were not the spaceships of extraterrestrial beings. The following excerpt included the quotation: 1

I am told, though, that so many people have seen objects that looked like spaceships that “there must be something to it.” Maybe there is, but think of all the people in the history of the world who have seen ghosts and spirits and angels.

It’s not what you see that is suspect, but how you interpret what you see. After all, you can see with your own eyes that the Earth is flat and that the Sun goes around the Earth; you see that even though you have been taught that what you see is consistent with the interpretation that the Earth is a sphere and goes around the Sun.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading


  1. 1966 June, Science Digest: The Science News Monthly, Volume 59, Number 6, UFO’s–What I Think by Isaac Asimov, Start Page 44, Quote Page 46, Column 2, Published by The Hearst Corporation, New York. (Verified with scans; special thanks to the Sadie Hartzler Library of Eastern Mennonite University; the Dick Smith Library of Tarleton State University)

The Most Exciting Phrase in Science Is Not ‘Eureka!’ But ‘That’s funny …’

Isaac Asimov? Alexander Fleming? Archimedes? Anonymous?

petri15Dear Quote Investigator: The classic phrase that is supposed to be uttered by a scientist when he makes a major discovery is “Eureka!” That was the famous cry of the ancient Greek sage Archimedes. But the prominent science fiction writer Isaac Asimov insightfully noted that the actual remark preceding a breakthrough probably reflected surprise and uncertainty such as:

“That’s odd.”
“That’s funny.”
“Hey, wait a minute.”

The scientific advance occurred when the anomalous observation was further scrutinized. Would you please explore this topic to find out when Asimov made this statement?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in a message posted to the Usenet discussion system in 1987. The message was part of a source code listing of a computer program called “fortune”. This program was part of the installation of the popular UNIX operating system, and “fortune” was inspired by the notion of a fortune cookie.

When the program was run it displayed one item from a large collection of sayings and quotations that was kept in a simple database file. The quotation below appeared in a version of the program that was distributed on June 3, 1987: 1

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny …”
— Isaac Asimov

Asimov died in 1992, so the words were ascribed to him while he was alive; however, the data in the “fortune” program did not provide a precise citation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading


  1. Date: 1987 June 3, Usenet Newsgroup: comp.sources.games, Subject: v01i040: fortune – quote for the day, Part14/16, From: games-request at tekred.UUCP, Description: Source code listing for fortune computer program distributed via Usenet. (Google Usenet groups archive; Accessed February 28, 2015)