Study Guide

I, Robot Technology and Modernization

By Isaac Asimov

Technology and Modernization

All that had been done in the mid-twentieth century on "calculating machines" had been upset by Robertson and his positronic brain-paths. The miles of relays and photocells had given way to the spongy globe of plantinumiridium about the size of a human brain. (Introduction.6)

Asimov is writing this in the mid-twentieth century when "calculating machines" were like this. So he's got to come up with a science fictional variety of technology, which is the positronic brain—and we have to accept that as our premise if we want to see where these stories lead. Also, "platinumiridium" might sound weird, but it's just two regular elements: platinum and iridium.

In high good-humor the family took a taxi-gyro to the airport (Weston would have preferred using his own private 'gyro, but it was only a two-seater with no room for baggage) and entered the waiting liner. (Robbie.144)

Yes, robots are the most interesting technology in these stories, but we shouldn't forget that a lot of other things have changed in Asimov's future. And here's one: people aren't traveling by car or train, but by gyro, which probably means a sort of helicopter. Also, we have to admit, when Asimov says "liner," we're not sure what to think, but we do picture something like this.

Even ten years, technologically speaking, meant so much. Compare Speedy with the type of robot they must have had back in 2005. But then, advances in robotics these days were tremendous. (Runaround.11)

This may be the central story of this whole book: robot technology advances from non-speaking Robbie to world-controlling Machines. This is a pretty good reminder that technology has a tendency to move forward—even though sometimes we might be fearful about what new technology will bring.

When these stations were first established to feed solar energy to the planets, they were run by humans. However, the heat, the hard solar radiations, and the electron storms made the post a difficult one. Robots were developed to replace human labor and now only two human executives are required for each station. We are trying to replace even those, and that's where you come in. You're the highest type of robot ever developed and if you show the ability to run this station independently, no human need ever come here again except to bring parts for repairs. (Reason.24)

Besides giving us an understandable history of human space technology, this passage may hint at one other issue with technology: it often replaces or changes human occupations. Here's a whole space station that might be totally run by robots. What will the people do who used to have these jobs? Will their lives be better now that they aren't exposed to so much radiation?

There's still the possibility of a mechanical breakdown in the body. That leaves about fifteen hundred condensers, twenty thousand individual electric circuits, five hundred vacuum cells, a thousand relays, and upty-ump thousand other individual pieces of complexity that can be wrong. (Catch that Rabbit.47)

We're glad we don't have Powell and Donovan's job because robot technology is complicated. This comes up again in "Liar!" in regards to how complex the robot construction process is. And this is the only reason why we bring this quote up: robot minds may seem simple with only three laws, but robot bodies are very complicated. There's a whole lot of complexity that goes into making something like a robot.

Bogert relaxed into an undignified grin, "She's using lipstick, if that's what you mean." 

"Hell, I know that. Rouge, powder and eye shadow, too." (Liar.99-100)

Yes, it's the future, with all sorts of amazing new technologies—robots and taxi-gyros and space stations that beam power to Earth. But women still have lipstick and rouge and eye shadow—there's been no progress in that area. Maybe this comes from the fact that Asimov didn't really know about make-up. But we might argue that it shows how not everything progresses at the same rate. Or maybe a bit of both.

But these incidents I have written up don't apply much to the modern world. I mean, there was only one mind-reading robot ever developed, and Space-Stations are already outmoded and in disuse, and robot mining is taken for granted. What about interstellar travel? It's only been about twenty years since the hyperatomic motor was invented and it's well known that it was a robotic invention. (Little Lost Robot.9)

The flip side of technology's advance is this: things are cool at first (space stations!) but then people start taking them for granted (eh, space stations) and we need new cool technology (hyperatomic drives!). In fact, this is kind of the interviewer in a nutshell—he's a young guy who was born into a world with robots, so he takes them for granted; whereas Calvin saw robots from their first humble beginnings and so doesn't take them for granted.

"You see, sir, Consolidated's machines, their Super-Thinker among them, are built without personality. They go in for functionalism, you know—they have to, without U. S. Robot's basic patents for the emotional brain paths. Their Thinker is merely a calculating machine on a grand scale, and a dilemma ruins it instantly." (Escape.30-1)

Near the end of the book, we finally get a little explanation of why the robots here are so emotional—it's part of their positronic brain (which is a patent owned by US Robots). But also, we see that this bit of technology isn't just for fun: US Robots makes emotional robots with personalities because it's helpful technology.

"By using human ova and hormone control, one can grow human flesh and skin over a skeleton of porous silicone plastics that would defy external examination. The eyes, the hair, the skin would be really human, not humanoid. And if you put a positronic brain, and such other gadgets as you might desire inside, you have a humanoid robot." (Evidence.157)

Lanning explains to Quinn how you could make a robot look like a human, which is not exactly acceptable technology. We pulled this quote for that reason: it's a reminder that technology can make things possible that we might want to avoid. But also, it's a little glimpse into other technological advances: we don't just have robots in this future, we have "hormone control" that can be used to grow a human-like body over "silicone plastics."

"And that is all," said Dr. Calvin, rising. "I saw it from the beginning, when the poor robots couldn't speak, to the end, when they stand between mankind and destruction. I will see no more. My life is over. You will see what comes next." (Evitable Conflict.229)

Calvin may be useful as a frame narrator for this book since she's been around nearly from the beginning. (In fact, all the people who have been around as long as her have passed away—the original Robertson, Lanning, Bogert.) She helps maintain our sense of technological progress without taking anything for granted or being too shocked about the whole thing.