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I, Robot

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I, Robot

Front cover of an edition of I, Robot.

I, Robot is a theme anthology by Isaac Asimov first published in 1950. It is one of Asimov's most acclaimed books. I, Robot went on to be very loosely adapted into a film (the script had largely already been written before the makers acquired the rights to the book). I, Robot is made up of nine short stories; these stories are loosely connected (in the book, they are tied together by a narrative framework, namely, a journalist interviewing an elderly Dr. Calvin about her life and about the history of US Robots) due to the fact that they all have roots in Susan Calvin's life. Dr. Calvin was the chief robopsychologist at US Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., which is in the book the major manufacturer of robots in the 21st century.

Three Laws of Robotics

Several of the stories revolve around a robot's resolution of conflicts between the Three Laws of Robotics that Dr. Asimov introduced in his stories as part of the required programming of all robots.

  1. A robot may not injure a human being; nor, 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.

Plot

Susan Calvin is mentioned throughout the book, and the first person in it is a journalist, each chapter starts or ends with a question and Dr. Calvin relates one of the following stories, these binding texts are known as Mind and Iron.

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Robbie

"Robbie" is the first short story in I, Robot, it is centered on a girl, Gloria, and her robot friend, Robbie. Gloria's mother, Grace Weston, is worried that Gloria spends to much time with Robbie and not enough time with people. She eventually sways Gloria's dad, George Weston, into getting rid of the expensive robot. George feels bad about returning Robbie to the factory, and buys Gloria a pet dog.

Nonetheless Gloria, missing her best friend Robbie, withdraws and ceases to enjoy life. Her parents, getting desperate take their daughter to every conceivable tourist attraction, George still sick with shame takes his wife and daughter to a robot construction factory. There, Gloria spots Robbie and runs out in front of a machine in her joy at seeing him. Gloria would have be crushed if not for the fact that Robbie ran towards her and scooped her out of the path of the hurtling vehicle. On the walkway, Mrs. Weston confronts her husband: he had set it all up. Robbie was not an industrial robot and had no business being there. Mr. Weston knew that if he managed to get Robbie and Gloria back together, there would be no way for Mrs. Weston to separate them. When Robbie saves Gloria's life, an unplanned part of the reunion, Mrs. Weston finally agrees that he might not be a soulless monster, and gives in.

Runaround

"Runaround" is based in the year of 2015, Powell, Donovan two robot field testers and a Robot SPD-13 (aka "Speedy") are on mercury attempting to restart a old mining station there.

There they are disturbed to find that their photo-cell banks that support life on the station are short on selenium, and would shut down if they are left in this state, as Speedy is the only one who can survive Mercury's harsh temperatures Donovan sends the robot to gather selenium from a nearby pool. Speedy however, doesn't return for five hours, at which point Powell and Donovan decide to make their way to the pool though the underground tunnels. Upon arriving at the pool the two humans are surprised to discover the robot running huge rings around the selenium pool. And acting in a way, that were the robot human, would be interpreted as drunkenness.

Powell orders the robot to return to them, but Speedy displays a show of unwillingness before continuing the circles around the pool

Powell eventually realizes that the selenium source contains some sort of unexpected danger to the robot. Under normal circumstances, Speedy would observe the Second Law ("a robot must obey orders"), but, because Speedy was so expensive to manufacture and "not a thing to be lightly destroyed", the Third Law ("a robot must protect its own existence") had been strengthened "so that his allergy to danger is unusually high". As the order to retrieve the selenium was casually worded with no particular emphasis, Speedy cannot decide whether to obey it (Second Law) or protect himself from danger (the strengthened Third Law). As a compromise, he circles the selenium until the harsh conditions and conflicting Laws damage him to the point that he has started acting inebriated. Attempts to order Speedy to return (Second Law) fail, as the conflicted positronic brain cannot accept new orders. Attempts to change the danger to the robot (Third Law) merely cause Speedy to change routes until he finds a new avoid-danger/follow-order equilibrium. Of course, the only thing that trumps both the Second and Third Laws is the First Law of Robotics ("a robot may not...allow a human being to come to harm"). Therefore, Powell decides to risk his life by going out in the heat, hoping that the First Law will force Speedy to overcome his cognitive dissonance and save his life. The plan eventually works, and the team is able to repair the photo-cell banks.

Reason

Like Runaround, "Reason"'s characters are again Powell and Donovan, this time they have been assigned to a space station, where they construct a robot, QT1, known to them as Cutie, this robot is different from most in that it was made with constructive reasoning in mind for it.

Powell and Donovan later regret this, for the robot soon assumes that the humans are inferior, and refuses to obey any commands from them. It comes to this conclusion because Powell and Donovan have lower intelligence than it.

Cutie decides that space, stars and the planets beyond the station don't really exist, and that the humans that visit the station are unimportant, short-lived and expendable. It invents its own religion, serving the power source of the ship (Master), concluding that it must become the Prophet of the Master, and soon converts the rest of the robots on the ship of this new religion, preventing Powell and Donovan from restraining it by force. Powell and Donovan do everything they can to convince the robot of its mistake, even building another robot before its eyes. Cutie watches in silence, then comments, “But you didn't really create the robot. The parts were created by the master”

The situation seems desperate, as a solar storm is expected, potentially deflecting the energy beam, incinerating populated areas. When the storm hits, Powell and Donovan are amazed to find that the beam operates perfectly. Cutie, however, does not believe it did anything other than maintain meter readings at optimum, according to the commands of The Master. As far as Cutie and the rest of the robots are concerned, solar storms, beams and planets are non-existent.

Powell and Donovan are sent to their quarters till their tour of duty is over, when the replacements arrive Powell and Donovan neglect to warn the new team of Cuties disposition. When Powell and Donovan tell Cutie that they are on their way back to earth, the robot only tells them that it is best they think so and it now sees the wisdom behind the illusion

Catch that Rabbit

Again this story is based on field testers Powell and Donovan, this time the team is running a base on a asteroid mining station, their team of robots are led by DV-5 (aka Dave) who in turn answers to the humans. Dave stops producing ore, but will not explain why, claiming he doesn't remember.

Powell and Donovan are intrigued by this and secretly spy on Dave, they are surprised to find the robot marching up and down in a peculiar fashion, with the other robots following suit. Powell and Donovan perplexity turns to horror when they discover themselves trapped by a rock fall in the tunnel that they were spying on Dave from. As if this weren't bad enough for them the robot switched off its communication during its odd marches. Powell attracts the robots attention by shooting one of the other robots. Dave immediately switches back to him self and digs the two humans out. Powell later explains the reason for Dave funny behaviour. The six robots under Daves command were controlled though positronic fields, a means of transmission not yet fully understood by roboticists. The underlings are known as fingers, Powell explains that Daves “dance moves” are him twiddling his fingers.

Liar!

"Liar!" follows a story in Susan Calvin's life, Susan is investigating a Robot, nicknamed Herbie, which can read minds. this leads to some trouble since at the time Susan is in love with one of the mechanics, Milton Ashe. Herbie tells Susan that the Milton also loves her.

Meanwhile mathematician Peter Bogert has asked Herbie if Alfred Lanning, Director of US Robots, is thinking of resigning any time soon, and who might be his successor, Herbie announces that Dr, Lanning has already resigned to come into effect after it is discovered why Herbie can read minds, and that the next Director of US Robots will be Bogert. This leads Peter to be very insolent, and when he tells Lanning of his discovery they both set of to meet with Herbie.

In this Time Susan has found that Milton is engaged, enraged at Herbie’s lie she rushed to the robot, and then, upon arriving at the robot, she realised why he had told her that Milton loved her, due to the first law, “a robot must not injury a human being”, which out ruled, “a robot must not lie”, Herbie had been forced to lie to her to prevent her any mental harm. At this time Lanning and Bogert came into the room, When Lanning asked if Herbie had discussed him with Peter, Herbie promptly lied; “no, sir”, however once Bogert asked if Herbie had said that Lanning was going to resign the robot fell silent, unable to say anything without causing harm. Susan revealed how they had also been tricked. Herbie had naturally told them what they wanted to hear. So now, when asked what had gone wrong in his assembly the Robot was presented with a roundabout, if he were to tell them, this would deflate Lanning and Peters ego, imagine the answer coming from a mere Robot, when they had failed. How ever not to tell them would also harm them, because they both wanted to know the answer, Susan repeated this over, in till the robot could take no more and Herbie collapsed irreparably. “Liar!” Susan said.

Little Lost Robot

At Hyper Base, a military research station on an asteroid, scientists are working to develop the hyperspace drive - a theme that is explored and developed in several of Asimov's stories and mentioned in the Empire and Foundation books. One of the researchers, Gerald Black, loses his temper, swears at an NS-2 (Nestor) robot and tells the robot to "....go lose yourself." Obeying the order literally, it hides itself. It is then up to US Robots' Chief Robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin, and Mathematical Director Peter Bogert, to find it. They even know exactly where it is: in a room with 62 other physically identical robots.

But this particular robot is different. It has had its First Law of Robotics modified to "No robot may injure a human being"; the normal "or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm." has been omitted. Therefore, it could stand by and allow a human to be hurt, as long as it plays no active part in it. The robot must be found because people are still by and large afraid of robots, and if they learned that one had been built with a different First Law, there would be an outcry, even though the robot is still incapable of directly harming a human. However, Dr. Calvin adds further urgency by postulating a situation whereby the altered law could allow the robot to harm or even kill a person. The robot could drop a weight on a human below that it knew it could catch before it injured the potential victim. Upon releasing the weight however, its altered programming would allow it to simply let the weight drop, since it would have played no further active part in the resulting injury.

After interviewing every robot separately and going down several blind alleys, Dr. Calvin finds a way to trick the robot into revealing itself, and it is destroyed before it can harm her (as it seemed about to do).

Escape!

In "Escape!", many research organizations are working to develop the hyperspace drive. US Robots are approached by their biggest competitor with plans for a working hyperspace engine that allows humans to survive the jump (a theme which would be further developed in other stories). But they are wary because, in performing the calculations, their rival's (non-positronic) supercomputer destroyed itself.

US Robots find a way to feed the information to their own computer, a positronic one known as The Brain (which is not a robot in the strictest sense of the word, as it doesn't move), without the same thing happening. The Brain then directs the building of a hypership.

Powell and Donovan board the ship, and the ship takes off without their being initially aware of it. They also find that The Brain has become a practical joker; it hasn't built any manual controls for the ship, no showers either and it only supplies tinned beans and milk for the crew to survive on.

Eventually, the ship does successfully return to Earth after a hyperspace jump, and Susan Calvin discovers what has happened. A hyperspace jump causes the crew of the ship to cease existing for a brief moment, which is a violation of the First Law (albeit temporary) and this frightens the AI of "The Brain" into irrational, childish behavior as a means of coping.

Evidence

Stephen Byerley is a lawyer, a successful, middle-aged prosecutor, a humanitarian who never presses for the death penalty. He runs for Mayor of New York City, but Francis Quinn's political machine smears him, claiming that he is a humanoid robot, that is, a machine built to look like a human being. If this is true the hysteria would ruin his campaign, as of course, only human beings are allowed to run for office. Quinn approaches U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men corporation, the world's only supplier of positronic robot brains, and attempts to persuade them that Byerley must be a robot. No one has ever seen Byerley eat or sleep, Quinn reports.

All attempts to prove or disprove Byerley's humanity fail. He visits the U.S. Robots offices, where the Chief Robopsychologist Susan Calvin offers him an apple. Quite nonchalantly, Byerley takes a bite — proving nothing, since like he may have been designed with an emergency stomach. Quinn attempts to take clandestine X-ray photographs, but Byerley wears a device which fogs the camera. Through all these investigations, Byerley remains calm and smiling, pointing out that he is only upholding his civil rights, just as he would do for others if he is elected. His opponents claim that, as a robot, he has no civil rights, but Byerley counters that they must first prove that he is a robot, before they can deny his rights as a human — including his right not to submit to physical examination.

Once all physical means are exhausted, Susan Calvin indicates that they must turn to the psychological side. If Byerley is a robot, he must obey the Three Laws of Robotics. Were Byerley to violate one of the Laws, he would clearly be a human, since no robot can contradict its basic programming. However, if Byerley obeys the Laws, it still doesn't prove he is a robot, since the Laws were invented with human morality in mind. "He may simply be a very good man," observes Dr. Calvin.

Ironically, to prove himself to be a human being, Byerley must demonstrate that he is capable of harming a human. Byerley never confirms or denies his flesh-and-blood status and lets the entire campaign ride on this single issue. While he is giving a speech, a heckler rushes the stage, and the heckler asks to be hit in the face. Byerley complies and punches the heckler in the face. Most people are convinced that he is human, and the emotional uproar demolishes Quinn's smear campaign. Byerley wins the election without further difficulty.

In the final scene, Susan Calvin confronts Byerley, who is again spending a late night awake. She says that she is somewhat regretful Byerley turned out human, because after all, a robot would make an ideal ruler, one incapable of cruelty or injustice. In an almost teasing speech, quite unlike her usual self, Dr. Calvin notes that there is one case, "just one", where a robot may avoid the First Law: when the "man" who is harmed is merely another humanoid robot. This implies that the heckler whom Byerley punched may have been a robot, and if that was the case, Byerley hadn't broken the First Law, leaving the question of his humanity open. At the end Dr. Calvin notes that Byerley had his body atomized upon his "death" thus wiping out any evidence either way.

The Evitable Conflict

The "Machines", powerful positronic computers which are used to optimize the world's economy and production, start giving instructions that appear to go against their function. Although each glitch is minor when taken by itself, the fact that they exist at all is alarming. Stephen Byerley, now elected World Coordinator, consults the four other Regional Coordinators and then asks Susan Calvin for her opinion.

They discover that the Machines have generalized the First Law to mean "No robot may harm humanity, or through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm". (This is similar to the Zeroth Law which Asimov developed in later novels.) Dr. Calvin concludes that the "glitches" are deliberate acts by the Machines, allowing a small amount of harm to come to selected individuals in order to prevent a large amount of harm coming to humanity as a whole.

In effect, the Machines have decided that the only way to follow the First Law is to take control of humanity, which is one of the events that the three Laws are supposed to prevent.

References in other media

There have been references to the Three Laws of Robotics in other places in our culture. Even when the reference is not explicit, stories exploring the tension between a "thinking machine" and a biological human. On Star Trek: The Next Generation, one episode had small robots sacrificing themselves to save humans, but also to save each other (The Quality of Life (episode)). On a broader scale, the tension between doing what one thinks is best for another and what that other wants is common theme.

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