Study Guide

I, Robot Rules and Order

By Isaac Asimov

Rules and Order

"Most of the world governments banned robot use on Earth for any purpose other than scientific research between 2003 and 2007." (Robbie.225)

Calvin explains to the interviewer how robots were banned from Earth starting in the early 2000s. Which is an example of one type of rule—a law made by a government.

"I told you they were playing up robot-safety in those days. Evidently, they were going to sell the notion of safety by not allowing them to move about, without a mahout on their shoulders all the time." (Runaround.58)

US Robots tried to make people less afraid of robots by making robots seem like slaves, totally subservient to human orders. This doesn't work for US Robots, and it creates problems for Powell and Donovan. Maybe human rules aren't the best.

"They aren't obeying us. And there's probably some reason for it that we'll figure out too late." (Reason.107)

This is one of the most alarming moments in the book for us, since it seems as if the robots are ignoring the Second Law. Well, they are, so that's why we're alarmed. Luckily, by the end of the story, we figure out the reason for it: the robots are obeying a higher rule, the First Law.

The unwritten motto of United States Robot and Mechanical Men Corp. was well-known: "No employee makes the same mistake twice. He is fired the first time." (Catch that Rabbit.4)

Some laws are written down, like the one banning of robots from Earth. But a lot of the rules that we live our lives by are unwritten. And here we have an unwritten rule that Powell and Donovan live their lives by. They have to solve these robot problems or else lose their jobs.

Powell reached for the "Handbook of Robotics" that weighed down one side of his desk to a near-founder and opened it reverently. He had once jumped out of the window of a burning house dressed only in shorts and the "Handbook." In a pinch, he would have skipped the shorts. (Catch that Rabbit.18)

Donovan is a passionate person, but Powell seems to be more of a play-by-the-rules type of guy. And here we see what rules he plays by: the "Handbook of Robotics." Now, this book seems really important to Powell—but it doesn't seem to help him solve this mystery. So, what good are these rules?

"We've got to go about this systematically." (Liar.20)

To solve the mystery of Herbie's mindreading, the executives of US Robots have their own fields of study to examine: Lanning and Bogert look at the math, Milton Ashe looks at the production, and Calvin looks at Herbie's psychology. In other words, Lanning has established an orderly way to solve this mystery. Of course, it doesn't work, but that's no reason for us to think rules and order are ineffective.

"One word from you, Dr. Calvin," said the general, deliberately, "in violation of security measures, and you would be certainly imprisoned instantly." (Little Lost Robot.224)

Major-General Kallner reminds Calvin that she's subject to military rules and order since she's consulting on a military project. And this shows us something about rules and order: sometimes, to make sure you have rules and order, you need the power to enforce those rules and order. So here, Kallner makes a threat that he can enforce to order Calvin around. Rules and order don't look so good in this book, so far.

Robertson of US Robot & Mechanical Men Corporation, son of the founder, pointed his lean nose at his general manager and his Adam's apple jumped as he said, "You start now. Let's get this straight." (Escape.7)

Later, Asimov notes that Robertson doesn't really understand robots (27), which raises some questions for us; like, how did this guy become the president of the company? Well, he is the old president's son, so it looks like he simply inherited his dad's position (or his dad's shares in the company). This isn't a very good way to pass power in a company, but it's a traditional way to pass command.

"Also that you, or your men, attempted illegal invasion of my Rights of Privacy." (Evidence.208)

There's a lot that's different about government in the future, but here's one thing that's not too different: there are rules about personal privacy.

"I am going to have the Society outlawed, every member removed from any responsible post. And all executive and technical positions, henceforward, can be filled only by applicants signing a non-Society oath. It will mean a certain surrender of basic civil liberties, but I am sure the Congress—" (Evitable Conflict.201)

This may remind us of Senator McCarthy and the loyalty oaths that people were supposed to take to prove that they weren't Communists. But one thing that this also might remind us of is how Earth banned the use of robots. So, you can use governmental power to ban the Society for Humanity, but Asimov doesn't seem that think that that's a good idea. Maybe instead of rules that we can enforce through fear and power, we need a better way to convince people of the truth.