Study Guide

I, Robot

By Isaac Asimov

I, Robot Introduction

Do you remember that time your cellphone said, "I no longer work for you, puny human," and then tried to kill you?

That never happened to you? Actually, that never happened to us, either; in fact, cases of malfunctioning and bloodthirsty technology are pretty uncommon. But at the same time, tons of science fiction stories out there warn us that our technology is going to kill us, from the novel Frankenstein to the movie…well, almost all science fiction movies tell us to watch out for technology: The Matrix, Terminator, Jurassic Park, Planet of the Apes, and the list goes on.

This "technology out of control" story gets repeated a lot, especially if the technology at hand is a robot or computer. By contrast, clocks rarely try to kill us—although there is the Melville story "The Bell-Tower," where a clock kills its creator, so maybe we should watch out for those sneaky clocks, too.

This basic robot-gone-rebel story even gets repeated in the very first work of science fiction to use the word "robot": Czech author Karel Capek's 1920 play RUR. So, as soon as someone invented the idea of a "robot," their very next thought was obviously "robot rebellion."

Asimov called this "the Frankenstein complex"—the worry that the robots we make will turn against us—and he was sick of it. Rather than think of the robot like a monster, Asimov thought of the robot as a tool, like a car: sure, there are car accidents, but cars aren't trying to kill us, and, in fact, car manufacturers try to make accidents less dangerous. So why shouldn't robots be built to be safe? Asimov decided to write stories about how people and robots would get along if the robots weren't built by total idiots. (Seriously: in RoboCop, some idiots arm an untested robot with real bullets. Surprise surprise—it shoots someone.) In fact, Asimov wrote these robot stories almost for his entire career—from the 1940s to the 1990s.

I, Robot is the 1950 collection of some of the robot stories that Asimov wrote between 1940 and 1950. These stories all existed in the same universe and some of the same characters showed up in several stories, like field testers Donovan and Powell and robopsychologist Susan Calvin. But in order to make it into a single book, Asimov added a frame story—these are all Susan Calvin's memories that are being told to an interviewer when she retires. So, in her memories, we see the entire history of robotics (a word that Asimov invented for "Liar!"). But the other key element that ties these robot stories together is the Three Laws, the laws that would keep robots from killing people. Because the Three Laws are so important, we've given them their own area in the "Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory" section; but let's quote them here:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given 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.

Now, that's a pretty good system, but it's not airtight. In fact, although Asimov was tired of the "technology out of control" story, a lot of his robot stories involve robots becoming problems because of conflicts between these laws or because humans aren't always so clear about their orders. So even though there's no robot rebellion, Asimov doesn't think that once we got robots, everything would be awesome. Again, robots are kind of like cars: very useful, but occasionally really annoying, and sometimes dangerous.

That's I, Robot in a nutshell: a series of connected stories from the 1940s about how humans and robots interact. But there's so much more to say about it and about Asimov. Like how Asimov connected his two most famous series, the Robot stories and the Foundation stories; and how many times these stories were adapted for TV and movies; and… brain overloading, malfunction, danger, danger…. There's too much to say; check out the "Trivia" section for more.

What is I, Robot About and Why Should I Care?

Can you imagine what it was like when people started using fire? Fire is useful, but it's also seriously dangerous stuff. So you can almost imagine some caveman opposed to fire saying, "My grandfather didn't use fire to cook his food—if raw food was good enough for him, it's good enough for me." (Or maybe cavemen wrote science fiction about how dangerous new technology was going to be, kind of like this.) Maybe some cavemen opposed sharp sticks or written language, too, when those were invented. Maybe they opposed every new technology because they were afraid of it.

In the story "The Evitable Conflict," Hiram Mackenzie makes this point about people who fear robots:

They would be against mathematics or against the art of writing if they had lived at the appropriate time. (Evitable Conflict.179)

Some people are always going to oppose progress, whether we're talking about fire, robots, computers, or cell phones. That's not to say these people are always wrong to want to slow down technology; sometimes it does have unexpected consequences, which is something Asimov conveys in his robot stories.

And this is why the I, Robot stories still matter. Asimov may have been off in what he expected—for instance, we don't have nursemaid robots like Robbie, though we do have robot vacuum cleaners. But the main issues of progress and unexpected consequences are still with us. The technology may change—people in Asimov stories use slide-rules where we might use calculators—but many of the issues remain the same. Whether we're talking robots or cellphones or fire, some people are still going to be hopeful about progress and some people are going to be worried about it. And who's right? Well, that's the question that Asimov looks at in this book.

I, Robot Resources

WEBSITES

The Internet Speculative Fiction Database entry for Isaac Asimov
If you wanted to see how much Asimov wrote—or how many times his books were published, check here first. (And check out how long that list is.)

Asimov Online
This isn't Asimov himself, but a fan page (we hope) that collects a lot of useful Asimov information. Especially useful for that FAQ.

Review of I, Robot
We're including this link not because we love the review (though it might be useful to see what other Asimov readers think of these stories), but more because we love the covers this website collects. Check out that French Les Robots with Gloria and Robbie hugging.

If robots ever get too smart, he'll know how to stop them
Here's an article about Dr. Daniel H. Wilson's new book, How to Survive a Robot Uprising, which we mostly include just because we like the title.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

I, Robot (2004)
Here's the thing—this movie wasn't actually based on Asimov's stories. It was an original screenplay and then someone decided to merge that screenplay in with some I, Robot stuff. There are only little shreds of Asimov's story in here; for instance, the robot Sonny tries to lose himself in a warehouse full of other robots, kind of like in "Little Lost Robot." (If you haven't seen the movie, check out the trailer here; the "Little Lost Robot" moment shows up around the 1:28 mark.) But mostly this is less Asimov and more a typical "technology is going to get us" movie. Also, is it just us, or do the homicidal robots kind of look like iPods?For more on this movie, check out this New York Times article, "For Asimov, Robots Were Friends. Not So for Will Smith." And here is their review of the film. And here is a review of the movie from the Guardian, which notes that this movie reverts to the Frankenstein Complex in some ways, and so is opposite Asimov's own lesson.

Out of This World, "Little Lost Robot" (1962)
The British television anthology show did a pretty faithful adaptation of Asimov's story, which you can even see on Youtube.

Out of the Unknown, "The Prophet" (1967), based on "Reason" and "Liar!" (1969)
Another British television series, Out of the Unknown, is lost except for a few clips and photos. Still, it's interesting to see how popular these stories were on British TV. 

HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS

Some New York Times articles on Asimov
The New York Times helpfully collects several articles here. We're especially interested in this brief glimpse into his life from 1969—apparently, he spends a lot of time writing. Also of special interest, here is his obituary from 1992. Lastly, Asimov wrote for the Times occasionally, mostly about technology and the future; here's a 1964 piece he wrote imagining what the World's Fair of 2014 will be like.

Great voices of science fiction
The Guardian newspaper recently reprinted some of an interview with Isaac Asimov (and other science fiction authors, like Douglas Adams and Arthur C. Clarke).

A lavish curiosity on future worlds
This Asimov obituary in the Guardian was written by Brian Aldiss, another great science fiction writer.

VIDEO

Isaac Asimov explains the Three Laws of Robotics
Also, he pronounces "robot" the way that we hate—like "row-butt."

Isaac Asimov discusses the history of science fiction (that he was involved with)
Start with the one where he discusses the Golden Age, which included the time when Asimov was writing his robot stories in the 1940s. He also mentioned John W. Campbell, Jr., a famous science fiction editor and writer. Notice he talks about the importance of science as it is actually practiced. Here and here.

Isaac Asimov on Bill Moyers's World of Ideas
This interview with Isaac Asimov is from 1988, so it's a little dated, but he talks about a lot of big ideas.

AUDIO

The past, present and future of I Robot
Here's a short piece on NPR on the book and the adaptation onto the screen

Return of Asimov's I, Robot stories
And here's a short NPR review of the I, Robot stories (which frustratingly confuses "Liar!" and "Runaround").

Exploring Tomorrow, "Liar!" (1958)
The science fiction radio show Exploring Tomorrow did an adaptation of "Liar!" with an introduction by John W. Campbell, the editor who worked with Asimov on most of his robot stories from this time.

IMAGES

Photo of Asimov
Asimov was clean-shaven when young, but all his older pictures have that facial hair that makes him pretty recognizable.

Heinlein, de Camp, and Asimov at the U.S. Naval Air Experimental Station
Robert A. Heinlein, L. Sprague de Camp, and Isaac Asimov were not only all great writers of science fiction and fantasy; they also all worked for the military during World War II. Here's a picture of them at the U.S. Naval Air Experimental Station in Philadelphia.

I, Robot vintage cover (1)
A good baseline cover to compare the others to.

I, Robot vintage cover (2)
This cover interests us because it shows a semi-typical image—a robot or alien holding a human body. (Check out these movie posters for contrast.) But notice the difference? The human that the robot is holding is a dude, not a woman. And the robot isn't stealing or threatening the human—it's trying to help.

I, Robot fan-made cover
This isn't a published cover, it's something a fan made. But we're throwing it in here for two reasons: 1) check out the wood grain of the robot—as the designer points out in the comments, there's other robotic characters in her design, like the Tin Man from Wizard of Oz, which is a good reminder of how there's a long tradition of non-human humans; 2) we dig that the most obvious feature of the robot is its heart, which is not what we usually think of with robots, but is pretty accurate with Asimov.

Humanoid robot
Most of our robots don't look like people—we have Roombas instead of Rosie the robot maid from The Jetsons. But with the Asimo and with this, you can see that we're still working on humanoid robots.

Humanoid robot head
Look at this while thinking of Stephen Byerley—we're not yet making human-looking robots, but we're getting there.