Study Guide

I, Robot Foolishness and Folly

By Isaac Asimov

Foolishness and Folly

"It was all quite ridiculous and quite useless. And yet there it was." (Introduction.35)

This is Calvin talking about human opposition to robots. Notice how this human folly is both a) silly and b) ineffective. If it were only one of those things—say, if people were right to oppose robots but still ineffective, or if people were silly to oppose robots but effective in their opposition—then this wouldn't be folly, but tragedy.

"Most of the villagers consider Robbie dangerous. Children aren't allowed to go near our place in the evenings." (Robbie.88)

Grace Weston is fearful and foolish (though we should add, not really villainous), but we should note that she isn't alone. US Robots has trouble because lots of people are foolishly worried about robots. How can you deal with popular prejudice like this?

And his last words as he receded into the distance were, "There grew a little flower 'neath a great oak tree," followed by a curious metallic clicking that might have been a robotic equivalent of a hiccup. (Runaround.119)

Speedy is the robotic equivalent of drunk. And this might be the most foolish a robot ever gets in these stories. Most of the foolishness in this book is humans doing the wrong thing. When a robot is foolish, it's because its brain doesn't work right (although maybe that's what it means when a human is being foolish as well).

"Call it intuition. That's all it is so far. But I intend to reason it out, though. A chain of valid reasoning can end only with the determination of truth, and I'll stick till I get there." (Reason.11)

Why is Cutie being foolish here? The big reason is that he ignores the evidence and is only interested in reason. (Which is to say, he's not very scientific about the issue.) But the other reason why we call him foolish is that he starts from a position that has nothing to do with reason; after all, "intuition" is almost the opposite of reason.

Donovan was back with the suits, "They've gone jingo on us, Greg. That's a military march." (Catch that Rabbit.69)

OK, we included something like this under the section on fear but we had to include it under Foolishness as well. Because, honestly, how does Donovan get from "military march" to "robot rebellion"? We mean, not everyone who wears a uniform is a soldier and not everyone who marches is a soldier. Usually, you know who the enemy soldiers are because they're the ones shooting at you. In other words, Donovan is getting worried about the totally wrong thing here.

"There's irony in three of the greatest experts in robotics in the world falling into the same elementary trap, isn't there?" (Liar.216)

"Liar!" may be one of our favorite stories because everyone looks bad in it: Milton Ashe doesn't realize how he's hurting Calvin; Bogert and Lanning don't realize what Herbie is doing; and Herbie can't figure out that what he's doing is going to cause more harm. But Calvin probably ends up looking the most foolish because she's so close to getting it, like when she notes that she always used to pretend that Ashe's girlfriend was his cousin, which was just what Herbie told her (77-8). Of course, she figures it out first, and that's why we love her also—most foolish but also smartest scientist in the room.

Bogert saw her politely to the door and grimaced eloquently when she left. He saw no reason to change his perennial opinion of her as a sour and fidgety frustration. Susan Calvin's train of thought did not include Bogert in the least. She had dismissed him years ago as a smooth and pretentious sleekness. (Little Lost Robot.70-1)

Unlike Powell and Donovan (who are foolish in a funny way and fight just for fun), Calvin and Bogert make a terrible team because they really seem to dislike each other. Now, we love Calvin—she's really the smartest person in the book and is almost always right—so it's clear that we think Bogert is being foolish. But Calvin is also being a little foolish here. Bogert may be many things, but he's also a pretty good mathematician and a pretty good negotiator. If they worked better together, they would have an easier time with this mystery; but their personal hostility means they have a harder time with things.

She brought it out calmly, "He developed a sense of humor—it's an escape, you see, a method of partial escape from reality. He became a practical joker." (Escape.322)

We're big fans of folly here at Shmoop, so we're glad that we finally get an example of folly that's actually somewhat useful. In order to figure out how to make a hyperatomic drive, the Brain had to find a loophole in his moral code, and to cover that loophole, he becomes…humorous. Actually, we think all his jokes are pretty silly, but he does have the mind of a child. At least with this bit of foolishness, he was able to solve a serious mystery without hurting anyone permanently.

"He won't open Byerley," said Calvin, disdainfully. "Byerley is as clever as Quinn, at the very least." (Evidence.164)

Quinn is supposed to be a master manipulator in "Evidence," and he certainly manipulates Lanning. But Calvin points out that Byerley is smarter than Quinn. In fact, Quinn gets tricked up by his own trick in this story, which is a pretty foolish thing. So not all foolishness in I, Robot has to do with robots at all…unless Byerley is a robot, that is.

"The task of the human brain remains what it has always been; that of discovering new data to be analyzed, and of devising new concepts to be tested. A pity the Society for Humanity won't understand that." (Evitable Conflict.177)

Hiram Mackenzie points out why the Society for Humanity is foolish: they think robots are replacements for humans rather than companions. Now, we only meet Mackenzie for a moment, so we don't know if he's as smart as Calvin, but he seems to have a good point here: robots can do some things, but not all that a human can do. So the Society for Humanity has a foolish worry.