I, Robot (1940 – 1941) by Isaac Asimov
Presented as a collection of nine short stories, each exploring and pushing to the limit the Three Laws of Robotics set forth from world maestro of science fiction, professor of biochemistry, and all-round prolific writer Isaac Asimov (1920 – 1992).
The Three Laws of Robotics 1 – A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. 2 – A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. 3 – A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
In I, Robot we follow a quirky and varied bunch of reoccurring characters. We have robotic engineers Donovan and Powell, an eccentric duo that always seem to find themselves in the midst of some robotic shenanigans, and robot psychologist Dr. Susan Calvin along with the rest of the heads at US Robots and Mechanical Men Inc. which is the leading authority on the research and development of modern robots. In this fictional futuristic world (futuristic at least from the perspective of the 1940s) central to the propagation of autonomous robots was the advent of the ‘positronic brain’ a device which resembles much of our own biological equivalents that is responsible for the mental processes which take part in the ‘mind’ of the robot.
Each story in the collection looks at a different scenario involving robots, humans, their relationship, and the social-economic impacts that the robotics industry could have on the world. The stories are engrossing and expertly written, providing memorable entertainment as well as concepts to ponder that are still relevant today almost 100 years later such as an increasing robotic/machine dependency by humans, robot-ethics, and humanity’s ability to keep a grasp on its technological progress.
From somewhat light-hearted conundrums of robots exhibiting quirky and unexpected behaviour to more complex scenarios where the means of control on robot and machine are strained and in some cases adhered to beyond human implication such as in the story ‘Little Lost Robot’ where an exceptionally crafty robot is offhandedly told to ‘get lost’ and follows this directive to such a degree that even the leading authorities have difficulty in finding it. In the same story and most of the others, much paranoia arises about the nature of the robotic laws and what would happen if they were to fail or if the robotic brain would ‘evolve’ beyond them, this is perhaps most evident in the stories:
‘Reason’ – where one robot is in such disbelief that something as complex as itself could be created by flawed humans that it constructs an almost religious devotion to the idea that some unseen higher power was responsible for its creation, despite any evidence to the contrary.
‘Liar!’ – where the first law of injury is extended to human emotion and feelings in addition to physical harm.
‘Evidence’ – where the Laws of Robotics are intermingled with a judicial system, leading to an evolution in the definition of these robotic laws and extending the capabilities of robots in this regard.
‘The Evitable Conflict’ – which imagines a vastly different geopolitical landscape of the world where each nation has a powerful computing machine in charge of sustaining its economy. The machines begin giving minute errors in provisioning and an investigation is launched to uncover whether these are caused due to error or intention on the part of the machines.
In these morsels of speculative fiction we are provided with glimpses of a possible (or should I say fast-approaching) future still yet to come. The collection does an interesting job of taking something we are familiar with (or that we like to think we’re familiar with), technology, and casts it in such a light that our inherent obfuscated understanding of it and the possible dangers or otherwise unwanted consequences of this lack of foresight becomes apparent.
As to the collection’s predictions for robotic technology, such as the first ‘mechanical nanny’ capable of autonomy and superhuman movement being produced commercially by 1996, naturally there is a degree of error in timeframe, at least in creating robots that resemble human form, movement, and autonomous capabilities (which would be quite an inefficient and egocentric application of robotics, most likely the form of supercomputer or computer network would be preferred which is hinted at in ‘The Evitable Conflict’). However in the introduction we discover that the Robotic Laws have been supplied from the Handbook of Robotics, 56th edition dated 2058 so we still have some time to catch up. Also central to the scientific landscape of I, Robot is the idea of space colonialization to some degree as the setting of these stories vary from space station to mining outposts on solar planets such as Mercury.
If you’ve ever thought about humanity’s technological progress, robots/artificial intelligence, or what shape or form the future could take, then I can highly recommend you give this collection a read. Asimov’s style isn’t overly-reliant on overwhelming the reader with scientific terminology or complex scientific processes in order for them to enjoy the scenarios and stories put forth and the narrative of these stories have an easy-to-follow flow to them without compromising the deeper concepts they aim for.
~Giuseppe Gillespie February 2022