Study Guide

I, Robot Choices

By Isaac Asimov


"Robbie was constructed for only one purpose really—to be the companion of a little child. His entire 'mentality' has been created for the purpose. He just can't help being faithful and loving and kind. He's a machine—made so. That's more than you can say for humans." (Robbie.76)

We've quoted this before and we'll do so again because we love this line. It really helps express how the robots are designed to be good. Robbie doesn't really have a choice in the matter—he has to be good. There's something ironic in the way that Asimov turns something that sounds negative ("he's a machine") into something positive ("He just can't help being faithful and loving and kind").

"Hold on, Greg. There are human rules of behavior, too. You don't go out there just like that. Figure out a lottery, and give me my chance." (Runaround.210)

At the end of "Runaround," Powell makes a choice to risk his life to save his friend—which is the same thing that Donovan wants to do. Donovan doesn't get to make that choice because Powell has already made the choice for them both. This is a strange moment where human choices come into conflict. Awkward.

"I merely kept all dials at equilibrium in accordance with the will of the Master." (Reason.211)

We laugh at this because Cutie is doing something he thinks is religious but we think is engineering. What's interesting to us is that Cutie doesn't exactly have a choice about what he does—he has to protect humans. But he does have a choice about how he thinks about it. What a rebel. Religious fervor never looked so technical.

"How is a robot different when humans are not present? The answer is obvious. There is a larger requirement of personal initiative." (Catch that Rabbit.100)

Dave's problem in "Catch that Rabbit" is totally an issue of choice. When humans aren't around, Dave has to make his own decisions, and he can't do it. (Actually, we learn that he has trouble giving orders to all six of his subordinate robots, but it seems like he has trouble making choices.) This is sort of a weird position for a robot to be in, since we usually think of a robot as not making any choices at all since a robot is constrained by the Three Laws.

"Have you—told anyone?"

"Of course not!" This, with genuine surprise. "No one has asked me." (Liar.47-8)

We love Herbie's response here. It seems as if he promised not to tell Calvin's secret to anyone, as if he were a friend. But of course the issue isn't friendship—it's just that no one asked. If Herbie thought that the person who asked would be hurt if he didn't tell, of course Herbie would tell Calvin's secret. Herbie isn't making a choice about this; he's acting according to the Three Laws of Robotics.

"He looks deeper than the skin, and admires intellect in others. Milton Ashe is not the type to marry a head of hair and a pair of eyes." (Liar.71)

This is Herbie talking about Milton Ashe (and by that, we mean lying about Milton Ashe). Lying here isn't a choice for Herbie—it's what he feels he has to do. But we pulled this quote because of the choice that Milton makes to choose the pretty but dumb woman over Calvin. Or is it a choice? How much free will do the humans in these stories have?

In human beings, voluntary action is much slower than reflex action. But that's not the case with robots; with them it is merely a question of freedom of choice, otherwise the speeds of free and forced action are much the same. (Little Lost Robot.164)

We don't usually think of robots as having a lot of choices—they have to follow the Three Laws. (Although there actually is a lot of leeway in how those laws are interpreted and how they put those laws into practice.) But "Little Lost Robot" shows us a bunch of robots making choices, and here we see something funny about robots: their voluntary choices may look a lot like their involuntary reflexes. So how can we tell them apart?

"No, but all I eat on ships are beans. Something else would be first choice." His hand hovered and selected a shining elliptical can whose flatness seemed reminiscent of salmon or similar delicacy. It opened at the proper pressure. (Escape.198)

Beans, beans the magical fruit, the more you eat the more you…wait,we'll let you finish that one. The point is, having only beans to eat while you're stuck in a spaceship sounds like it could get a little gassy. This is Brain's idea of a joke, but we wonder if this is really a joke about choice: Donovan tries to choose something other than beans, but he can't because all Brain has given them are beans. If you wanted to, you could make a connection between Brain's adherence to the Three Laws and the choices (or lack of choice) that he gives to Powell and Donovan.

"And the change from nations to Regions, which has stabilized our economy and brought about what amounts to a Golden Age, when this century is compared with the last, was also brought about by our robots." (Evidence.3)

Today, this might seem like a strange choice: nations do join into regional partnerships and such (such as NATO or the European Union), but it's hard to imagine nations choosing to totally join together into regions. And this was probably even harder to imagine in Asimov's day. But in these stories, this is what happens, thanks to the robots. People might not choose to join their nations together, but the robots help people out. This foreshadows what happens in "The Evitable Conflict," what with robots helping people to make good choices.

"It [humanity] was always at the mercy of economic and sociological forces it did not understand—at the whims of climate, and the fortunes of war." (Evitable Conflict.225)

Byerley is worried about the idea that the Machines have taken choices out of the hands of humanity. But Calvin points out that humans have never totally had the freedom to choose. According to her, we've always been subject to forces beyond our control. If that's true, then humans are in the same situation as robots—constrained by certain laws and forces. If you've ever been struck by lighting or an unexpected rainstorm has ruined your new hairdo, you know what we're talking about.