410 I, Robot

irobotby Isaac Asimov, 1950

Recently, I discovered that Charlie Jane Anders and Annalee Newitz have a podcast about science fiction, called Our Opinions Are Correct, and I’ve been binge-listening the episodes on my morning walks/runs. Science fiction is very much comfort reading for me. It’s like getting in bed under a ton of blankets on a cold night or going for a run on a cool day and coming back to a hot cup of coffee. It’s what I get lost in. Listening to the podcast has got me yearning to pick up some classic reads, and I felt that I could not go wrong with Isaac Asimov’s robot series. Now, I have already read I, Robot, and I didn’t particularly love it the first time, but I’m so glad I picked it up again and gave it another try. It was just the sort of quintessential robots-vs.-humans story I needed.

I, Robot is a frame story. Our narrator is a journalist who is interviewing Dr. Susan Calvin, the acclaimed first great practitioner of robopsychology. At seventy-five, she’s retiring, and our narrator wants to get some juicy information for their feature article. They essentially want the “human interest” side of how robots came to be integrated into human society. Dr. Calvin notes that, at thirty-two, the journalist doesn’t remember a world without robots when mankind was alone. That changed when robots began to be sold for use on Earth, back when they couldn’t talk. As they got more human, opposition to their use rose, with labor unions claiming unfair competition for human jobs. At the present moment in the timeline, robots are only used for extraterrestrial work, but that wasn’t always the case. It all started in 1996 with a non-vocal robot named Robbie who was designed to be a child’s nanny.

The novel is actually a collection of short stories that explain the growth of robot intelligence and their self-imposition over humans through time. All robots are bound to the three laws of robotics: 1) a robot may not injure a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm; 2) a robot must obey orders given to it by a human except where such orders conflict with the First Law; and 3) a robot must protect its own existence as long as it does not conflict with the First or Second Laws. These rules are established in the belief that they will keep the robots servile, but humans soon learn that the more sophisticated they design robots to be, the more sophisticated their logic is, such that they can easily obey all three laws while slowly taking away control and autonomy from their human creators. One of the creepiest scenes is when the robot QT-1 , referred to as “Cutie,” refuses to believe that it was made by humans. “It strikes me that there should be a more satisfactory explanation than that,” it says. “For you to make me seems improbable.” The robot determines that it is a prophet of the Master, who first created humans as the lowest type of beings, then replaced them with robots, then created Cutie to replace the humans. “From now on, I serve the Master,” Cutie proclaims.

Although this book was written over fifty years ago, the concerns about robots taking over the world, nay, the galaxy, still feel real and modern. Our anxieties about algorithms determining what we see, who we vote for, and what products we buy are just a short leap away from the reality that robots create our world for us, rather than the other way around. What doesn’t feel modern is some of the language and plot points Asimov employs. It’s hard not to cringe when Dr. Calvin impatiently calls a robot “boy,” a term often used for enslaved men by owners who referred to them as children to further wrest their autonomy and dignity from them. Additionally, while Asimov might have been ahead of the game by making the famed robopsychologist a woman, he doesn’t spare her from the fate of being written as a woman who’s more concerned about love than she is with her own work. It’s not that a person cannot be interested in both, but it’s hard to see her, at the age of thirty-eight, reduced to a tittering schoolgirl when talking about her crush.

Nevertheless, I, Robot is a wholly satisfying work of science fiction that remains a classic for a clear reason. We’re still wringing our hands about the dangers of robots exercising too much influence over us and wondering what will happen when we, likely unwittingly, give them full control. Despite my love of sci-fi, Asimov has always been something of a blind spot for me, as I tend to lean more toward Bradbury than anyone else. I think it’s time to change that.


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