When one considers the staples of science fiction, thoughts linger on little gray aliens, dreams of Mars, and, of course, robots. The idea of humans developing robots to help them with everyday life is far from science fiction, for the term “robot” is highly flexible. Modern society shows us a prototype of the robot butler in the form of Siri or Alexa, though they appear inhibited by their lack of humanoid bodies. The classical idea of robots was certainly not created “hard” science fiction, the fiction that houses minds like Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke. The concept appears as early as the 1927 film Metropolis-- though, of course, the idea of man fashioning another can be seen far prior in figures such as Pygmalion. Asimov spent a bulk of his career exploring the implications of the use of robots, the end in which to use robots, and reflecting upon how human’s creation may look upon its creator. Though the entirety of the collection I, Robot explores themes regarding these robots, for the beginning week I decided to dive deeper into three of the short stories: “Runarounds”, “Evidence”, and “The Last Question”.
In “Runarounds”, Asimov introduces two familiar characters, the scientists Powell and Donovan. They seem to have a friendly relationship, though they are understandably under duress, for if they do not find the solution to their robot companion’s erratic behavior, they will promptly die due to the heat of Mercury. More important than introducing Powell and Donovan, “Runarounds” is the first introduction of a central concept: the Three Laws of Robotics. As Powell explains, the laws work as such:
- A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by a human being except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
The short story is quick, fun, and straightforward, though the documentation of the Laws proved to be incredibly influential. As well as being adapted by other authors to apply in their own works, Asimov continued to explore the implications of these rules. In “Runarounds” itself, he posits the question, “What would happen if a robot gets caught between two of the rules?” And the result? Catastrophic. It doesn’t know how to handle itself, and gets caught in a paradoxical loop, never fulfilling its purpose until Donovan and Powell trick it into following orders. The story, while fun, is definitely a set-up for a universe than it is explorative. For instance, Asimov isn’t concerned about what a humanoid may be forced to do under these rules-- at least, he isn’t yet.
In “Evidence”, he begins to explore the rules and robots with more nuance. A man running for mayor, Stephan Byerley, is suspected by his opponent to actually be a robot in disguise. Among the pair sent to investigate is Dr. Susan Calvin, another recurring character in Asimov’s short stories and a “robopsychologist”. “Evidence” not only shows a world in which a robot could be so adept at replacing a human that it fools everyone it meets, but also a world in which perhaps having robot leaders is preferable compared to human ones. Calvin, the leading voice on robotics in the story, certainly seems to think so. “I like [robots] considerably better than I do human beings,” she says, “If a robot can be created capable of being a civil executive, I think he’d make the best one possible.” Whether or not Calvin is correct in her opinion, years down the line, robots do take over the world’s government. And through Clavin an idea that robots, following these laws, are more civil, just, and measured than the humans that created them. However, in both “Runarounds” and “Evidence”, despite the new implications of the faults of man, Asimov does not show humans abusing these robots by forcing them to comply to unsavory actions. There is no hypothetical thought experiment of how female-presenting cyborgs would be treated or mistreated, no definitive answer on if a robot would steal to pay for a pressing medical bill, or how it would react to a human telling it to kill or else the giver of the command will kill himself. Nor, really, does he need to explore these concepts, but it remains that the Laws are not necessarily shown as limiting in an exploitable light, just that they are limiting.
Later in Asimov’s career, it seemed he did begin to consider this line of thinking with his work. This is clear in “The Last Question”; the story that is his self-proclaimed favorite. While the question referenced in the story is “Is there a way to reverse entropy?”, the question posited to the readers is, “Do our creations love us?” And it gave readers an answer as well: Yes. throughout the future of human history, its own creation, a super computer that evolved alongside humans, continued to ruminate over the question of how to stop the inevitable extinction of humanity due to the age and exhaustion of the universe. Even when humanity is long gone, and the hyper-space dwelling computer has no one to answer to, it completes its query with an exclamation,
“LET THERE BE LIGHT!”
A declaration of love as it returned life to the galaxy, allowing humanity to return to the fold. And a fantastic starting point to the project as a whole-- for even though Asimov only got so far in the exploration of humanity’s relationship to robots, other authors have only gone further, both in regard to humanity and “the other” and the boundaries of science fiction as a whole. By the end of this study, I fully expect to return to these stories and to I, Robot as a whole with a stronger understanding of the works as foundational to others.