David Sarkies's Reviews > I, Robot

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov
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Apr 14, 2012

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bookshelves: sci-fi
Recommended to David by: Dad
Recommended for: Hard core sci-fi buffs
Read from April 10 to 15, 1994

Birth of the Machine
14 April 2012

This is a collection of short stories about the development of robots. Well, since robots of this caliber have yet to be developed, it is obvious that it is little more than science-fiction, however Isaac Asimov can be said to have developed a form of speculative science-fiction where he attempts to look into the future from a logical and scientific point of view. He was not the first, that honour belongs to Jules Verne, however he does take his style of writing and expands upon it. Asimov did write some more adventurous stories, though his genre tended to be more in the vein of detective fiction, which once again goes to show how science-fiction is not strictly a genre in and of itself, but rather a mix of genres that have science-fiction like elements.

These stories are not detective fiction, not strictly, though there are some elements of mystery in them. In particular the last story, which involves an investigation into certain human politicians being replaced. It is not a question of humans being killed, that is simply not possible when it comes of Asimov's robots, but that does not necessarily mean that the robots do not interfere in the development of human society. In fact, the whole book seems to move towards that point where robots step in to prevent humanity from destroying itself.

As mentioned, these stories are more speculative fiction, however the ideas that Asimov promoted in these stories have gone on to become a foundation point for any possible development of 'thinking' robots. I use the term lightly on the grounds that technically robots do not, and cannot, think the way we humans do. Robots are governed by logic and by the program. Some can say so are we, but I could argue that our original programming has been corrupted. However, the other point that I could raise is the idea of free will. It appears that we have something in us that enables us to make choices, whether they be logical or illogical, or whether they be bound by reason or irrationality.

However Asimov's robots do not have free will. Rather they are governed by three, and later four, basic rules. These rules cannot be broken and form the foundation of robotic society. The laws pretty much set the robots up as servants to humanity, in that they cannot harm humans, they must obey humans, and they cannot harm themselves. The fourth law is actually called the zeroeth law, which says that they cannot harm, or through inaction, allow harm to come to humanity. The catch is because this law overides all of the other laws, which means that it overrides the first law about the prevention of harm to humans. Therefore, speculatively considering, if a human were to go about and cause harm to humanity, then the robot could step out and kill them.

The whole concept evolves around the idea of the positronic brain. No such machine exists at this point, though I suspect that many scientists and engineers have dreamed of being able to develop one (though maybe some could argue that Google’s Deep Mind falls into that category). However, one thing that Asimov did not envisage back in 1950 was the development of computers. They existed in 1950, and I suspect that Asimov would have had access to and used them, so he would have been familiar with them (he was a chemist, however while being a scientist, he also went on to become a very successful science-fiction writer). In a way it is a shame that Asimov has not received as much of the kudos that he could have. While this book is not 'the best' of his writings, it has had an impact. Data from Star Trek had a positronic brain, and was also governed by the three laws. If we look at other films (not counting Terminator) we also see a similar concept in play. Robots cannot harm humans.

However, it also reminds me of an old Doctor Who episode called The Robots of Death. The whole story was about a murder, however the robots in this story functioned like Asimov's robots. That was not the point of the story though, but rather it was about what would happen if our society became dependent on robots, and then the robots went rogue. This is sort of explored in the Will Smith movie as well. We have robot dependent societies and they perform all of the heavy manual labour. As such, if the robots were to break down, then society would be in a lot of trouble, particularly how nobody is accustomed to hard labour any more. Further, robots would provide access to places that are generally inaccessible.

The other thing is that robots always seem to take bipedal shapes. I guess that is because we take bipedal shapes and it is considered to be the most versatile. However, humans may be versatile but there are still limits. Robots do not need to be versatile, they just need to be designed for the job that they are designed to do, and, unlike humans, they are not going to be ambitious, nor will they get bored with their job. However, it might be helpful if they are not designed to think or to imagine (which, once again, I doubt is a trait that robots could possess).
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Denis (new)

Denis Great insightful review. What must be read after this original series, is his "The Bicentennial Man" (1976). The expanded version by Robert Silverberg is also very good. This is of a more sophisticated development of Asimov's original possible robot / human dilemma. Almost plausible today with the current wave of automation in industry.


David Sarkies Thankyou Denis. I planning on doing a reread of Asimov's Robot/Empire series in order - I believe Bicentential Man is among them. I saw the film ages ago but I would prefer the book.


message 3: by Denis (new)

Denis You will, I'm sure. Though I enjoyed the film version as well.


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