Book 16: I, Robot
Let’s talk about I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. This book of short stories is hands down one of my favourites so far on my list. It combines everything I love about science fiction: robots, interesting problems and realistic reactions by humans to said robots, as well as philosophical explorations. Oh, and there’s not too much exposition. :p
Though it’s a series of short stories, the book does have a single narrative thread that unites it all. The main narration comprises a journalist interviewing Dr. Susan Calvin, robopsychologist for U.S. Robots & Mechanical Men Corp. (You might recognize her name from the feature film I, Robot starring Will Smith.) It is Dr. Calvin who tells the journalist all the different stories in the book.
I won’t go into the plot of each short story because I don’t want to rob you of the joy of reading it yourself. But I will say that the stories explore the Three Laws of Robotics as well as robot intelligence. Also, you might remember that one of the stories, Reason, was on my list separately and I’ve already read and reviewed it. Reason is one of my favourite stories in the book, as well as Robbie, Evidence, and The Evitable Conflict.
The Three Laws of Robotics
U.S. Robots & Mechanical Men Corporation instills the Three Laws of Robotics in every positronic brain in every robot manufactured. Again, if you saw the movie, you might remember these laws:
- A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
I just love that Asimov thought of these laws. They are creative but also incredibly logical, and in terms of fiction, a great framework upon which to build stories. However, according to our friend Wikipedia, Asimov didn’t want to take credit for inventing the laws because “they are obvious from the start, and everyone is aware of them subliminally.”
He included them in his stories because he was tired of the sci-fi of his day writing about robots who inexplicably turn on their creators. He thought it was illogical. Naturally, if we can build such beings, we would include such safeguards. I’ll probably delve deeper into these laws in another post because I’m just fascinated by them and they have received a lot of attention over the years.
Black Mirror-Type Extrapolation
One thing I really enjoy about I, Robot is the logical extrapolation of the premise into the future. By this I mean that Asimov takes the ideas of computational machines to their furthest possible conclusion in the stories. In The Evitable Conflict, for example, the issue is that computers run the entire world economy and humans basically just have to do what the computers say in order to keep everything stable. Their manufacture is described thusly:
“A team of mathematicians works several years calculating a positronic brain equipped to do certain similar acts of calculation. Using this brain they make further calculations to create a still more complicated brain, which they use again to make one still more complicated and so on. According to Silver, what we call the Machines are the result of ten such steps.”
So the computers are making computers are making computers ever more advanced. We’re already seeing this today with machine learning.
Indeed, Dr. Calvin says,
Perhaps we roboticists as a whole should now die, since we can no longer understand our own creations.
With this line, I think Asimov foreshadowed our path in real life.
Another realistic theme I enjoyed in the book is the presence of fundamentalists, those who oppose the existence of such advanced robots and feel them a threat to humanity. This theme runs throughout the stories and in fact informs some of the basic laws imposed by the government on U.S. Robots.
A similar theme is present in the show Altered Carbon (if you haven’t watched it on Netflix yet, what are you waiting for?!). There too religious fundamentalists oppose the idea of wearing different sleeves, thereby gaining immortality, because it is unnatural and distorts the soul. There will always be naysayers to innovation, especially to something as intense and revolutionary as robots.
Strengths & Weaknesses
I, Robot is an incredible book of shorts. I’m just wild about it. The descriptions of the robots themselves are clear and contain just enough science to sound believable, and the stories all move forward at a good pace directly because of the characters and the situations at hand.
As mentioned, I love the deep dives into the Laws of Robotics and the discussions of how the presence of robots has impacted humanity.
If I had to give a weakness to I, Robot, I would say that in some of the stories it was sometimes difficult to know who was speaking because there weren’t enough speaker tags (i.e. “said Donovan”). This is purely technical and the only thing that pulled me out of the stories on a few occasions.
I also briefly read about a few criticisms of the Three Laws, so there might be some holes there that more discerning readers will pick up. But right now I’m so enamored by the whole thing that I’m blind to those. If I write a post diving deeper into the Laws then I might be able to look at the ideas more critically.
Anyhoo, that it’s for now regarding I, Robot. This book is an integral part of the science fiction canon as it is among the first on my list (the other being the play R.U.R.) that examines the interplay between robots and humanity.
Up next on my list is The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.
Asimov, Isaac. I, Robot. New York: Bantam Dell, 2004. Kindle Edition.
Author: Isaac Asimov
Published: 1950; previously published as separate short stories.