Saturday, December 15, 2012

I, Robot By Isaac Asimov

I, Robot
By Isaac Asimov
Copyright 1950

To set the stage for his stories, Asimov introduces us to Dr. Susan Calvin who served as the robopsychologist for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men – the manufacturer of robots in the world since 1996. A reporter is interviewing her upon her retirement after 50 years of service to the company. She is recognized as the leading authority on robots and the reporter wants her to recount the history of the development of robots from the “human angle” from the first model –Robbie – in 1996 through the 21st century. Dr. Calvin’s reminiscence is the basis of the flowing narrative through the stories.

10 year old Gloria’s favorite – and only -- playmate is Robbie. Robbie is an android who cannot speak, but serves as a nanny robot. Gloria’s mother hates that Gloria plays exclusively with Robbie and that her attachment to the robot may be inhibiting her social evelopment. Eventually, Gloria’s mother convinces her father to get rid of Robbie and buy Gloria a puppy. Gloria doesn’t want a puppy; she wants Robbie. The family decides to take a trip to New York. While there, they tour the U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men factory, hoping that Gloria will realize that her playmate was a machine and not a person. When they get there, they find Robbie has a new occupation – assembling robots. Gloria runs to greet her long lost friend and is nearly struck by a piece of factory equipment, but Robbie saves her. Gloria’s mom decides that Robbie can come home.

This is one of Asimov’s earliest stories and was published under the original title, Strange Playfellows in the September 1940 edition of Super Science Fiction. It was later updated to include a young Susan Calvin, who was a college student studying the first talking robot at the U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men factory. It is in this story we learn about the first law of robotics: A robot may not harm a person under any circumstances.

Two astronauts, Powell and Donavan, are sent to Mercury with a robot named Speedy to resurrect a failed mining colony. Speedy is dispatched to an area 17 miles from the underground base to harvest selenium to use in the photocells that power the station. However, Speedy malfunctions and is running around in circles at the site. The two scientists figure out that robotic laws two and three are causing a conflict in Speedy. Rule two says that a robot must obey the commands of its master. Rule three says it must act to protect its own life. There is apparent danger at the site so the robot must avoid it. Yet, it must fulfill its assignment. It is brainlocked and behaving erratically. Donovan and Powell find the archaic robots from the first Mercury mining venture and set out to retrieve Speedy who runs from them. Finally, Powell figures out how to invoke the first law of robotics to bring Speedy to him and get him returned to the station for repairs.

This story first appeared in the March 1942 edition of Astounding Science Fiction. What emerges here as in the first story is Asimov’s crisp, lean writing. Like most pulp writers, Asimov had to work to put as much story into as few words as possible. The characters have no backstory and the reader is given scant details of the setting. Asimov drives his stories through dialogue and does it well.

Powell and Donovan have departed the fiery hot Mercury for the cold depths of open space to a space station. There, they are working with the next generation of robots. This robot, named Cutie, can reason. With its limited scope of information and experience, it reasons that the stars and planets do not exist as anything other than display material outside the windows of the space station. It decides that the power source of the station is a god and that it and the other robots must serve this god. It tells Powell and Donovan that THEY are the beings with a limited understanding of the cosmos and that they must be isolated from the robots. Powell and Donovan let Cutie and his disciples do their job and wait out the rest of their tour.

This story is intriguing for its use of pure logic based on a scope of knowledge. It sounds very much like the senseless arguments humans have over religion, believing that reason can triumph over faith or vice versa. This story was originally published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in April, 1941.

Catch the Rabbit
Powell and Donovan are testing yet a new robot. This time, they are stationed on an asteroid. The new robot, Dave, supervises six lesser robots in the mining of ore. For some reason, one day, the crew stops producing. When questioned, Dave can’t provide a reason why. One of the lesser robots reports getting an order from Dave to mine, but before it can start, Dave issues new orders to dance. Donovan and Powell take up watching the robot crew at work. They notice that when they observe him secretly, Dave leads his robots in marches and dances while work goes undone. When Dave and his crew are observed directly, work goes on as planned. Donovan and Powell head toward the mine to watch the robots in person and to ascertain what order Dave is giving. They are trapped when the tunnel they are in collapses. They are trapped with just hours of oxygen left. Finally, Powell resolves to destroy one of the lesser robots to draw attention to their position. The elimination of one of the robots clears Dave’s decision making ability and he immediately acts on the first law of robotics. He must save Powell and Donovan. The robots clear the rubble and Powell and Donovan are freed. They determine that Dave had too many robots to supervise and too many decisions to make. By eliminating one robot, they freed up enough of Dave’s resources to restore him to working order.

Again, because of his sparse description of setting and circumstances, Asimov tells a lot of story with a few words, driving the story with dialogue. We also see the tension building between the two partners in robot beta testing. They do not get along as well as they used to.

U.S. Robots produces a new line of robots. Unfortunately, a glitch in the assembly process has given the prototype the ability to read minds. The top brass at the company want to know why, so they ask Susan Calvin to use her expertise in psychology to find out why. Susan starts the questioning, but can’t help but ask Herbie if he’s read the mind of a man upon whom she has a crush. She wants to know his feelings. Herbie tells Susan the man is in love with him. He tells another scientist that he’s going to be promoted. Unfortunately, both statements are lies. The first rule of robots makes it impossible for Herbie to cause hurt to any human, so he tells them what he wants to hear. To punish him and to destroy him, Susan causes him to have a nervous breakdown.

Asimov cleverly links more emotional aspects to robots as we see Herbie struggle with that great defyer of logic, the Catch 22. Herbie’s damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Although he’s wrecked two lives, the reader can’t help but feel sorry for him in the end because he did the only thing he could do.

Little Robot Lost
On a remote asteroid laboratory, scientists are working to develop the hyperspace drive technology that will allow interstellar travel. One scientist, in a fit of anger, tells one of the robots to, “Get lost!” Being a robot who must take orders he does just that. The problem is, he is one of just a few robots who have been adjusted so they have an altered perception of the first law of robotics which makes him potentially dangerous. Dr. Calvert and Dr. Bogert are dispatched to the asteroid to find this robot who is hiding in plain view since he is identical to his counterparts. Fearing that the robot, with his altered personality, may develop an independent will and become dangerous to humans, Dr. Calvert interviews more than sixty robots to find the altered machine, to no avail. Finally, she devises an ingenious ploy playing the first law and second law of robotics against each other to make the robot present himself.

Asimov weaves a complex psychological tale in Little Robot Lost. There isn’t a great deal of action, but the writing is superb as Dr. Calvin develops her strategy to find this robot. Although the robots have been nothing but benign in the stories thus far, one feels the growing tension among those who work with robots. As they grow increasingly complex and intelligent, they become more unpredictable. This story was first published in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in March, 1947.

U.S. Robotics and Mechanical Men have developed a positronic computer they call The Brain. The company is approached by a competitor and offered a no lose proposition to assist in the development of a hyperspacial drive. A ship is built and Powell and Donovan board it to inspect it. While they conduct their inspection, unbeknownst to them, The Brain launches the ship and the men are shot into space and eventually leave the galaxy. As they fly through the cosmos, convinced they are going to die of starvation, food appears and they are able to survive. Eventually, The Brain brings them back to Earth. Dr. Calvin interviews The Brain who has lapsed into a childlike state. She is able to surmise that the flight led to the “temporary death” of the two men for just a moment which is in direct violation of the first law of robotics. The artificial intelligence that was The Brain, having violated the law, goes insane and remains a child.

The writing in this story is not as tight as the others and the reasoning is sometimes difficult to follow. Dr. Calvin makes some pretty large leaps of logic in arriving at her conclusions. If there is a weak story in the collection, this one is it. The childlike behavior of the artificial intelligence would be utilized sixty years later by Dan Wilcox in his best seller, Robopocalypse. Escape was originally published as Paradoxical Escape in Astounding Science Fiction in August 1945.

Is a mayoral candidate a robot? One of his political opponents thinks so and approaches U.S. Robotics and Mechanical Men scientists Dr. Alfred Lanning and Susan Calvin about proving it. Both Calvin and Lanning are dubious, claiming that all positronic brains are carefully accounted for. But Stephen Byerley has never been seen eating or drinking in public. Lanning and Calvin visit and interview Byerling and are unable to reach a conclusion. Byerling’s opponents release their information and a public furor ensues. To prove that he is a human, he violates the first law of robotics and punches a person in the face in front of a crowd of detractors. Byerling goes on to win his election and rises in politics. Later, Dr. Calvin interviews him and finds out how the robot Byerling pulled off the stunt that resurrected his political career.

The growth of artificial intelligence creates fear in the masses and Asimov introduces the concept of robots equipped with artificial intelligence imitating humans to gain political power. There are shades of other great science fiction stories here including Who Goes There and The Body Snatchers.

The Evitable Conflict
As the human race has become interplanetary, the governments of the Earth unite under one government with robots managing production and all things economic. When small glitches in productivity start showing up, the head of the world government wants to know why. After reviewing all of the relevant data, no reason can be determined and the robots tell him it would be best he did not know. Dr. Calvin tells him that robots are now in control of everything and have determined it would violate the first law of robotics to tell humans the problem because the knowledge may harm them.

This was the capstone story to the whole collection. Robots evolved from simple mechanical men with a small amount of reasoning to become the masters of man – precisely what the Three Laws of Robotics was supposed to prevent. The concept and idea of the story are great. But the story reads like a government report which makes for dull reading. This story was not very good.

I, Robot was one of the finest collection short stories I’ve ever read. The early stories combined philosophy, psychology, and action to tell compelling interesting stories. However, Asimov’s tendency to drive a story through dialogue sometimes became a weakness in the stories that were supposed to serve as explanations for what was happening in the stories.


  1. I feel like a chump on account of the fact that I've never read any Asimov, apart from one short story I remember loving, but do not remember the title of. Possibly "Nightfall," but possibly not.

    Anyways, good review, and it reminds me of the fact that Isaac Asimov is one of the many names on my really-got-to-read-this-author-someday-soon list.

  2. I've read very little Asimov. I few short stories beyond I, Robot and the first two in the Foundation Series. I need to read much more.