Study Guide

I, Robot Friendship

By Isaac Asimov


"There was a time when humanity faced the universe alone and without a friend. Now he has creatures to help him; stronger creatures than himself, more faithful, more useful, and absolutely devoted to him. Mankind is no longer alone." (Introduction.30)

Would you say that the robots in these stories are our friends? Notice that Calvin first implies that robots are our friends by saying that there was a time when we were "without a friend"—but she doesn't reuse the word "friend." Certainly robots are helpful and faithful, but is that enough to make a friend?

"He was a person just like you and me and he was my friend." (Robbie.119)

Well, we might hesitate to call robots our friend, but Gloria doesn't hesitate to call Robbie both a friend and a person. Notice that Asimov puts this line into the mouth of a child, so we might dismiss her claim. But at the same time, we saw them play, and Robbie does really seem like a friend.

Of course, the damn fool had worked out the cube of fourteen in advance, and on purpose. Just like him. (Runaround.212)

What kills us about this quote is not just that Powell is willing to risk his life to save his friend's life or that Donovan is willing to risk his life to save his friend's. What gets us is that final "just like him"—which is clearly Donovan's thought and a reminder that they are friends who have spent a lot of time together and know each other's personalities.

It is impossible to perform any act of kindness toward you two. Always the same phantasm! (Reason.211)

We don't quite think Cutie is a friend to Powell and Donovan, but here he is at least trying to be friendly and share some info with Powell and Donovan (info about how the space station's power beam worked during the electron storm). As usual, the problem is that Powell and Donovan refuse to believe in Cutie's religion, so Cutie can't really be friends with them. This sure makes it seem like friends have to share at least a basic view of the world.

Powell regarded Dave—laymen might think of robots by their serial numbers; roboticists never—with approval. (Catch that Rabbit.22)

In the very next paragraph, Powell tells Dave, "you're a good fellow" (23). Once again, we're not sure we'd want to describe this relationship as a "friendship." But this is not quite the relationship between a repairman and a toaster—repairmen usually don't tell toasters that they are "good fellows." Robots may be tools for people to use, but roboticists have a different, almost friendly relation with them. Even when they're malfunctioning, as Dave is.

"Oh, I'd just as soon, I'm just busting to tell someone—and you're just about the best—er—confidante I could find here." (Liar.173)

We don't get to see a lot of human-human friendship in Asimov stories, and certainly not for Calvin. (Not until she meets Stephen Byerley, at least—although he might be a robot, so that would explain why she gets along so well with him.) And this isn't a friendship; this is one of those tragic mismatches, where Calvin wants to be more than friends. Ashe might not know how she feels about him, but he definitely knows that their relationship isn't totally normal—check out that bumble he makes before he finds the word "confidante."

"Destroy all sixty-three," said the robopsychologist coldly and flatly, "and make an end of it." (Little Lost Robot.43)

Calvin may be the human who is most friendly with robots. Bogert does say she's like a sister to them (161). That's why this story is so frightening to us: robots seem so human and Calvin seems so friendly to them. But her first reaction to a possibly dangerous robot is to destroy 62 innocent robots. We guess we can't really call Calvin a friend to robots, can we?

"That," said Donovan, bitterly, "is news to me. I was just beginning to have a very swell time, when you told me." (Escape.159-160)

If you didn't know any better, you might think that Powell and Donovan hate each other. But really, since we know they're friends, we can see their behavior as the sort of bantering/fighting that friends engage in. Are there other clues that they're friends?

Two strong arms lifted John from the wheel chair. Gently, almost caressingly, Byerley's arms went around the shoulders and under the swathed legs of the cripple. (Evidence.114)

Stephen Byerely might be a robot created by John Byerley, but that doesn't mean they can't be friends. Once again, we're not sure that this is a "friendship," but there are a lot of feelings in this relationship (as demonstrated here) that seem friend-like: warmth, respect, care, attention. John may have built Stephen, but they seem like equals when they talk about their plan to beat Quinn.

"For this evening, Stephen, you may talk how you please and of what you please, provided you tell me first what you intend to prove." (Evitable Conflict.17)

Susan Calvin doesn't have a lot of human friends through most of the story. Her best friend in the book might be Stephen Byerley (who may or may not be human), but check out this quote—it seems like a mix of friendly ("you may talk how you please") and professional ("tell me first what you intend to prove"). We may love Calvin and think she's great at her job, but she's not the kind of person you would probably want to hang out with all the time. She's a good robopsychologist, but maybe not a good friend.