I can bet any amount that you’ve seen the Will Smith Movie I, Robot. That was the single reason I did not pick up this book earlier – simply because I mistakenly thought that the movie would be like Harry Potter, a scene-for scene rendering of a classic. I was very much mistaken as the movie was loosely inspired on the book and had elements from several stories, all of them exemplifying the 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 orders given to 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.
The collection of stories in this book is created to showcase both the early origins of robot development to the later stages where robots entered a conflicted state where two or more of the rules clash or where one rule is missing from the get-up. Here are stories of robots gone mad, of mind-read robots, and robots with a sense of humor. Of robot politicians, and robots who secretly run the world–all told with the dramatic blend of science fact and science fiction that has become Asimov’s trademark.
I believe this book is more current now than it had been at the time it was created. With the advances in Artificial Intelligence and robotics, the stories seem rather current and while some people have deemed them humorous and perfect for children, they chilled me. It’s eerie how Asimov saw us travelling to the moon, travelling to Mercury to gather rare metals like Selenium, how the “positronic brain” was capable of adapting to external factors and learning through experience and even inventing a God (or Master) to worship.
There are several stories in this book, all told by Susan Calvin, robot psychologist, during an interview celebrating her career.
“Fifty years,” I hackneyed, “is a long time.”
“Not when you’re looking back at them,” she said. “You wonder how they vanished so quickly.”
She starts the story off by talking about Robbie, a household nanny robot, designed to keep company to the only daughter of a rich family. The issue that appeared was that the robot, who could not talk yet, became indispensable to the little girl and she refused to play with human children in favour of Robbie. When the parents attempt to sever this relationship, the girl goes into depression and the only time she comes out is when the parents suggest a visit to New York. She hopes to find Robbie there, they hope to make her forget about Robbie.
When they see that it’s futile to erase her memory of Robbie, the father attempts to create a happy reunion scenario that goes terribly wrong and Robbie dashes to save the little girl’s life. Robbie is then re-united with the family and gets left behind when the girl reaches her teens and other interests appear.
I loved some recurring characters, Donovan and Powell – robot testers – and the difficulties they have testing sophisticated robots which are malfunctioning because of some conflict between the two laws.
Catch That Rabbit
Little Lost Robot
The Evitable Conflict.
Take Speedy for example – sent to gather some well needed Selenium to keep the base working. His command to go and gather was quite weak (“Go and fetch some”), with no urgency, and when the robot goes near the gather area, he encounters a strong CO2 accumulation which would damage his structure and cause him to corrode. In order to respect the self-preservation law, he backs away but when he backs too much away, the command to go and gather kicks in again so he feels like he needs to return to the gather point. When the scientists realize what’s going on, they are literally given a run-around.
The story that I liked most, was with the robot that started off a cult of worshipping a condenser. He thought that the humans couldn’t have possibly built a far superior being like a robot, so the condenser must have done it. From that premise, the condenser was God and humans were only version 1 of creatures created to tend to the Master before the robots were created.
“The Master created humans first as the lowest type, most easily formed. Gradually, he replaced them by robots, the next higher step, and finally he created me, to take the place of the last humans.”
“I, on the other hand, am a finished product. I absorb electrical energy directly and utilize it with an almost one hundred percent efficiency. I am composed of strong metal, am continuously conscious, and can stand extremes of environment easily. These are facts which, with the self-evident proposition that no being can create another being superior to itself, smashes your silly hypothesis to nothing.”
The robot refused to believe in Earth and humans and effectively retire the two engineers who are obsolete and no longer fit for purpose. The great thing was, even though the cult of the Condenser comes to life, the robot does not forget his duties and during an electrical storm, he keeps the beam – that he was supposed to tend to, within one 1mm of the target.
One of the other stories I liked was with a lying robot, who would “read the minds” of the people around him and tell them exactly what they wanted to hear in hopes of not offending them and hurting them by hurting their feelings. The robot malfunctions when he is asked to tell the truth when everyone involved was present as it was impossible not to hurt anyone’s feelings and the command that is given to him is imperative.
All in all, the stories about sentient robots are a must-read.
“I have spent these last two days in concentrated introspection” said Cutie, “and the results have been most interesting. I began at one sure assumption I felt permitted to make. I, myself, exist, because I think-“ (does it remind you of Descartes)
Short stories like “The Evitable Conflict” and “Little Lost Robot” investigates the very concept of dangers posed by logic based reasoning. When an intelligent form lacks empathy, an imbalance is inevitable. “Evidence,” about one politician accusing another of being a robot, leading to a fascinating examination of the many concepts of robot and human ethics that Asimov explores throughout the book.
Sentimental story about a little girl who loves her robot. Studies show that people build emotional connections with robots easily.
Starting a trend that will shortly become boring, Asimov sets up a situation where his three rules cause an unforeseen conundrum – in this case, a robot running around in endless circles. The solution involves invoking Rule #1.
A robot takes the available evidence and comes to the logical conclusion that the ship’s engine is God and humans are deeply inferior. You’re like okay, how will Asimov talk his way to out of this? How can they prove that they’re really the robot’s creator? Humans realize, after much fluster, that (view spoiler)
Catch that rabbit
A new kind of robot that controls several other robots goes wrong.
A robot who can read minds may be lying.
Little lost robot
A batch of robots has been secretly made with altered first laws: while they still can’t harm humans, they can now stand by and allow humans to be harmed. One of the altered robots is hiding. How can he be picked out of a crowd?
Robots help us invent light speed travel, with unforeseen and unconvincing side effects that cause problems for the robots working on it.
A man running for office is suspected of being a robot. This is the first appearance of robots that look like humans, and also the story in which a version of the trolley problem is very briefly dealt with. I liked this one a lot.
The Evitable Conflict
Somehow, robot-directed industry is making mistakes. This story deals with the singularity, the moment when robot judgement becomes better than ours.
The fun part