Isaac Asimov

I, Robot

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I, Robot Summary

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I, Robot is a short story collection published in 1950 by Isaac Asimov. A collection of nine stories, the book explores the relationship between robots and humans in, what was at the time of publication, the not-too-distant future.

Though there are nine distinct stories, the collection is contained within a framing narrative of the retirement of Dr. Susan Calvin, chief robopsychologist at the leading robot manufacturer, U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. The stories are framed as Dr. Calvin’s memories of her time at the company.

The first story, “Robbie,” takes place in 1996. The Weston family owns a nursemaid robot nicknamed Robbie, to whom their daughter Gloria is deeply attached. Gloria’s mother, however, pushes to get rid of Robbie. Mr. Weston agrees and returns Robbie to the factory. Gloria becomes inconsolable, and in an attempt to show her that Robbie isn’t human, they take her on a tour of the U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men factory. When they step into the room where robots are assembling other robots, they find Robbie there at work. Gloria steps to greet her, and puts herself in danger. Robbie saves her life. Mrs. Weston, realizing this is a set-up, nonetheless agrees to bring Robbie back into the household.

In “Runaround,” set in 2015, two recurring characters, scientists Powell and Donovan, are sent to Mercury to re-establish long-abandoned mining operations on the planet. This story introduces Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  1. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  1. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

A robot, Speedy, begins to malfunction due to a conflict between laws 2 and 3. Sent to bring back selenium, Speedy gets caught in a loop, as proximity to the necessary element is a danger to its wellbeing. Powell is able to overcome the feedback loop by risking his life in venturing out into the inhospitable conditions, causing Speedy to escape the loop in order to save his life.

The third story, “Reason,” also involves Powell and Donovan, who are assigned to a space station. There, they meet QT1 or “Cutie,” who manages the team of robots that convert energy to microwaves and beam them down to Earth. QT1 does not believe in the existence of Earth or the colonies, and has created a religion centered on the supremacy of the ship’s power source. Powell and Donovan are concerned as a solar storm is set to potentially endanger Earth if it is not properly managed. However, they are surprised to find that the storm passes without complication, as it happens that QT1’s religion celebrates maintaining optimal meter readings. Powell and Donovan thus conclude that QT1 is capable of managing the system solo and, in fact, consider implementing the religion elsewhere, as it serves the needs of the humans as well as the robots equally.

The following story, “Catch That Rabbit,” includes Powell and Donovan yet again on a mining station on an asteroid. Here, they troubleshoot a robot with six subsidiary bots, discovering that managing six sub-bots overwhelms the main robot’s programming, and that only through destroying one of its sub-robots are they able to save themselves from a cave-in and leave the system fully functional.

Next, in “Liar!” a robot named RB-34 or “Herbie” has the unintended ability to read minds. In order to adhere to the first law, however, Herbie tells lies in order to avoid hurting people’s feelings. However, once Dr. Calvin confronts it with the fact that these lies are also painful, Herbie becomes unresponsive.

In “Little Lost Robot,” a researcher gets fed up with an N-2 (Nestor) robot and tells it to get lost, which is takes literally. Dr. Calvin and Peter Bogert must then find the robot, which has hid itself in a room with 63 other identical robots. Due to some alterations in the lost robot’s code, there is urgency in finding it, as it no longer contains the code that directs robots to intervene where inaction would harm a human. Ultimately they flush it out through a technical work-around and it tries to attack Dr. Calvin to maintain its anonymity, but is destroyed by the scientists.

In “Escape!” the company is attempting to create a ship that can go into hyperspace. While their competitor fails, they are able to create a supercomputer called “The Brain” that successfully engineers a ship. Powell and Donovan test it out and find some strange occurrences on board: there are no beds or showers and they are given only beans and milk for food. Though they successfully complete jumps and return back, they also had strange disembodied experiences. Calvin figures out that in order to jump, one must die for a brief period. While this contradicts the first law of robotics, Calvin has assured The Brain that humans don’t mind dying, and instead of imploding, The Brain has turned to practical joking as a means of coping.

“Evidence” tells the story of a man named Stephen Byerley as he runs for mayor of a major city. His opponent is convinced that he is a humanoid robot, and convinces Calvin and her colleagues to investigate his humanity. They attempt and fail to prove it through x-rays and other tests. The issue seems to be put to rest when Byerley punches a heckler at a rally, which would therefore violate the first law of robotics. However, Calvin points out in a confrontation with Byerley that he could still be a robot if the person he punched was also a humanoid robot. His identity therefore remains a mystery.

In the final story, “The Evitable Conflict,” Byerley has been appointed World Coordinator for the second time. He expresses concern over anti-Machine movements and asks for, and is denied, Calvin’s support for an anti-Machine movement witch-hunt. The machines are therefore free to twist the first law to support their dominion over humans, for they believe it is in humanity’s best interest.

Through these scenarios, Asimov explores how a core organizing synthetic morality (The Three Laws of Robotics) could play out as machines continue to become more nuanced and evolved. As with the best of science fiction, I, Robot forces us to consider the best and worst consequences of rapidly advancing technology and the thin line between man and machine.