I, Robot Summary
We'll break down the plots of the stories one-by-one, but first, a super-short, super-generalization of these stories: something goes wrong (or seems to go wrong) with a robot and three scientists—Susan Calvin and the Powell-Donovan team—figure out what the problem is and fix it (or figure out that it doesn't need fixing), and then everyone loves robots. However, there are at least two stories that don't at all fit in with that generalization: the frame story and "Robbie."
The frame story: Susan Calvin is being interviewed because she is retiring after 50 years at US Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., and she tells the interviewer about what happened with robots over that time. (This frame comes back between the stories.)
"Robbie": In 1998, the robot Robbie is a nursemaid for a kid named Gloria, who loves Robbie a lot. Unfortunately, Gloria's mom doesn't love Robbie, partly because other people in the neighborhood don't like robots. Mom Grace convinces Dad George to get rid of Robbie, but that makes Gloria miserable. (He was, after all, the only member of the family whose name didn't start with a "G," which must have been a relief.) The parents take Gloria to see the robot factory to show her that robots aren't really people. Gloria nearly dies when she sees Robbie working there and tries to get to him—but Robbie saves her. This convinces everyone that Gloria should get to keep Robbie. (Although robots are then banned from Earth starting in 2003, as Calvin reminds us in the frame.)
"Runaround": In 2015, Gregory Powell and Michael Donovan are on Planet Mercury and they have a problem: they need some element to make sure their power generator works, but their state-of-the-art robot, Speedy, is running in circles and their older robots are useless. Why is Speedy acting weird? It's because the Second and Third Law are in conflict—he's got an order to do something, but he's also got to protect himself. The only way to snap him out of it is to put a human life in danger and so activate the First Law. Once the First Law is activated, it works to snap Speedy out of his confusion, and everyone loves robots.
"Reason": Half a year later, Powell and Donovan are on a space station seeing if the robot Cutie can be trusted to take over the management of the space station. This particular space station converts energy and beams it down to Earth and the colonies. The problem is that Cutie doesn't believe in Earth since he has no evidence of it, and only believes in what he can reason out. So Cutie starts worshipping the power converter—but his method of worshipping works out perfectly, and so everyone loves robots, even when they turn out to be religious fundamentalists.
"Catch that Rabbit": Another half a year later (it must be 2016 by now), Powell and Donovan are checking out a mining robot named Dave that controls other worker robots. The problem? Every time there's an emergency and people aren't around, Dave freaks out. Powell and Donovan cause a cave-in that almost kills them, but they figure out in time that Dave only melts down when he has to control all the other worker robots. So Powell and Donovan shoot one of the worker robots, which frees Dave up so that he can save them. And so everyone loves robots—including that robot that Powell and Donovan had to shoot.
"Liar!": In 2021, a robot named Herbie is created with the unintentional ability to read minds. He tells people what they want to hear: Susan Calvin learns that the cute guy likes her, while Peter Bogert, who wants a promotion, hears that he's going to get it. But then Calvin figures out that Herbie is only telling people what they want to hear. Why? Because Herbie can read minds and he knows that he'll hurt people if he tells the truth—and hurting people is against the First Law. Then Calvin points out to Herbie that he's in a situation where anything he does will break the First Law and Herbie goes insane. And so everyone loves robots? That doesn't seem to fit this story. Everyone hates Herbie—yeah, that's more like it.
"Little Lost Robot": In 2029 Susan Calvin and Peter Bogert are brought to a secret military base to find an unstable robot who a) has an altered version of the First Law imprinted in his positronic brain; b) had been ordered by an upset scientist to "go lose yourself"; and c) is hiding among nearly identical robots. They run a series of tests, but the robot outsmarts them all, until his robotic pride gets the better of him and they catch him. He tries to attack Susan Calvin, but the First Law still prohibits it. And so everyone loves robots—but maybe we shouldn't screw around with the First Law, guys.
"Escape!": Soon after "Little Lost Robot," Calvin helps the childish super-computer Brain to figure out how to build a hyperatomic drive (think: warp speed). Calvin tells Brain that people don't mind death, which is good for Brain, because the only way for a hyperatomic drive to work is for people to die temporarily. But it's also bad because finding that loophole in the First Law makes Brain go a little crazy—he becomes a practical joker. So Powell and Donovan come out to check the experimental ship, which works, although they don't like Brain's jokes so much. And so everyone loves robots—but everyone hates practical jokes.
"Evidence": In 2032 a political backroom dealer named Francis Quinn accuses Stephen Byerley of being a robot. Calvin points out that the only way for a human to prove that he's a human is to disobey the Three Laws. During a speech, Byerley is harassed by someone in the crowd, and Byerley hits him—which proves that he's human, because a robot cannot harm a human being. So Byerley wins the election. Except, as Calvin notes at the end, a robot can hurt another robot, so Byerley could still be a robot if the person he hit was actually just a robot. It's clear that Calvin thinks Byerley is a robot, but there's no evidence for the reader to judge. And so everyone loves Stephen Byerley, who may or may not be a robot.
"The Evitable Conflict": In 2052 Stephen Byerley, now World Co-Ordinator, talks to Calvin about some problems going on with the Machines, the super-computers that help to run the world economy. Calvin points out that the Machines do what they do in order to help people, and he shouldn't worry so much. And so everyone loves robots, including the Machines, who are pretty boring for robots.
Then, at the end, we get a tiny note from the interviewer: Susan Calvin, who saw robots grow from simple nursemaids to world-running super-computers, has died at the age of 82 in 2064. And we have no idea how she spent her six (or so) years of retirement.
- The unnamed narrator gives us a lot of background info on Susan Calvin, the famous robopsychologist at US Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. For instance, she was "the first great practitioner of a new science" (Introduction.8) and people think she's cold and robot-like.
- Also, she is now retiring after 50 years at the company. So the narrator interviews her to ask her about her experience with robots.
- And she has a lot to say about robots. For one thing, she says that robots are our loyal companions and that "They're a cleaner better breed than we are" (Introduction.32). So she's going to tell a story about a robot nursemaid from 1998 to demonstrate this.
Originally printed as "Strange Playfellow" in 1940.
- It's 1998. Robbie is a simple robot—he can't even talk—but he sure seems to be a good caretaker for little girl Gloria Weston. They play in a scene that sounds really ordinary: Robbie (as the adult/babysitter) pretends to lose to Gloria; Gloria (as the child) wants a ride, etc. In other words, this is totally normal babysitting/nannying. Except the babysitter is a robot. (But all of our babysitters were robots, so that sounds totally normal to us.)
- Gloria tells Robbie one of his favorite stories—"Cinderella"—but Gloria's mom interrupts and tells Robbie to go away. (There's a wicked stepmother joke to be made here, but we'll keep our mouths shut out of respect for all the non-wicked stepmothers out there.)
- Mrs. Weston wants to get rid of Robbie for a few reasons. Like, the robot might hurt her little girl. And also, having a robot is no longer cool (75).
- But George Weston thinks her worries are silly. He points out that Robbie is safer than any human thanks to the First Law of Robotics: "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" (76).
- Grace Weston is still worried—maybe Gloria won't be normal if she only plays with robots, etc. (80). And after a systematic campaign of worrying about Robbie (say, from paragraph 61 to around paragraph 95), Grace wears her husband down.
- So the parents get rid of Robbie when Gloria is out seeing a movie. (Well, a "visivox"—which sounds like a futuristic way to say a movie.)
- Gloria is totally crushed by this and argues with her mom that Robbie "was a person just like you and me and he was my friend" (119). (Kind of creepy that she says "was" instead of "is"—as if Robbie is dead—but we'll let that pass. She's just a kid, after all.)
- The Westons try to distract Gloria from her crushing sadness, but it doesn't work. They get her a dog, they take her to New York City for a vacation—nothing works. Gloria sounds a little spoiled, if you ask us.
- In fact, in New York City, when the family is sight-seeing at the Museum of Science and Industry, Gloria slips away and goes to see the Talking Robot exhibit. It's a giant, room-filling computer that talks and answers math questions (169). (It probably looks like this computer, which was built four years after this story)
- When Gloria asks the Talking Robot if it knows where Robbie is, the Talking Robot's brain gets fried because it can't process the idea of other robots (184).
- (Which totally gives Susan Calvin an idea for a paper. See, she's been sitting in the museum and she saw the whole thing. This is her only appearance in this story and she doesn't even get a line. This part was totally added later, when Asimov put this story in this book.)
- Grace Weston has no ideas on what to do about her daughter's crushing sadness, but she still doesn't want to get Robbie back.
- But Dad George has one more idea to make Gloria realize that robots are just machines: the whole family goes to the robot factory to see where robots are made.
- Unfortunately for that plan, Gloria sees Robbie at the factory and goes running to meet him. And unfortunately for Gloria, a tractor in the factory almost crushes her. Luckily, Robbie runs out and saves her, faster than any human could.
- So Grace gives in and Gloria gets Robbie back. And that's the end of the story.
- Back at the interview, Calvin sets up the next story: once US Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., developed talking robots that could move, people got scared and banned robots from Earth. So US Robots made robots for space, including the Mercury mines.
- Of course, things didn't go so smoothly when US Robots tested their new robot there in 2015. Which leads us to our next story.
Originally published in 1942.
- It's 2015. Gregory Powell and Michael Donovan are on Mercury and they have a problem: they sent out a robot named Speedy to get selenium from a pool and Speedy hasn't come back yet. Which is odd, because he's quite speedy.
- In fact, Speedy is just circling and circling the pool of selenium (22), which is not only odd, but potentially going to lead to Powell and Donovan dying. See, Powell and Donovan need that selenium now in order to fix their "photo-cell banks"—and without those photo-cell banks, their Mercury headquarters is just going to burn up (24).
- (Yay, it's time for an astronomy history lesson: up until 1962, we used to think that Mercury was tidally locked—that is, we thought that one side of Mercury always faced the sun. So we had this idea of Mercury having a sunny side and a dark side, which is a pretty cool image, but not actually true. Still, when Asimov wrote this in the 1940s, that's what he thought, which is why Powell and Donovan need to worry about burning up: their HQ is always in the light. Yay for astronomy history.)
- Powell and Donovan need to get Speedy back, but they can't do it themselves; their inso-suits (insulation suits) will only keep them safe for 20 minutes in the sun (30).
- There are some 10-year old robots lying around from the first (failed) expedition to Mercury. These robots are giant and more primitive than Speedy (for comparison, check out the history of cellphones to see how we got from giant, diesel-operated mobile communication to Angry Birds). But what's worse is that, because they were built at a time when people were afraid of robot rebellion, these old robots will only move if a human is riding them.
- (Powell uses the word "mahout" here, which refers to someone who rides an elephant. Now that you know that word, you can use it in your everyday life.)
- So they can't go out to get Speedy, they can't send a robot, and they still don't know what's wrong with him.
- Powell and Donovan use some tunnels (remember, this is supposed to be a mine) to get closer to Speedy, who is still acting funny.
- (There's an awesome description here of what Mercury might be like, since everything is brighter and darker without atmosphere. Well, as Powell explains, Mercury has a tiny, poisonous atmosphere (86). Notice how Asimov likes to sneak science into his stories?)
- The robot SPD 13, who they call Speedy, is acting drunk: he's wobbling around, going in a circle, and singing Gilbert and Sullivan, which no robot does when sober. In fact, no one does that when they're sober.
- Then Powell and Donovan work out what's going on by thinking about the Three Laws of Robotics:
- "One, a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- "Two… a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- "And three, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws" (138, 140, 142).
- So here's the answer to the mystery: Speedy is acting drunk because he can't figure out which law to follow. Speedy is an expensive robot, so the Third Law was strengthened—and there's some dangerous gas near the selenium pool. And when Speedy was ordered to get selenium, the order was casual. So Speedy is caught between a weak Second Law (his order) and a strong Third Law (his self-preservation). So Speedy can't go forward to get the selenium (Third Law) and he can't go away because he was ordered to get the selenium (Second Law)—so he just goes around and around in a circle.
- Powell and Donovan try to use a chemical danger to force Speedy to come to them, but that doesn't work because the weak Second Law and the strong Third Law are still in conflict (198-9).
- Powell realizes that the only answer is to bring the First Law into play: a human has to be in danger to snap Speedy out of his drunken stupor.
- So Powell runs out into the sun and tries to get Speedy's attention. Like "hey, I'm going to die unless you stop singing Gilbert and Sullivan!" Which sounds like a typical Thanksgiving to us—please, parents, stop singing.
- One of the older robots almost ruins the plan by trying to save Powell before Speedy can do it, but Speedy saves Powell just in time (228).
- And everyone gets a happy ending: Powell recovers, Speedy gets the selenium from another pool, and Powell and Donovan start planning their next mission—a cool space station will be a nice change after almost burning up on Mercury.
Originally published in 1941.
- Half a year later, Powell and Donovan are still working with robots, still trying to figure out how positronic brains go wrong, even when "the slide-rule geniuses" say that the robots can't go wrong (Reason.1). (Maybe the problem is that they're using slide-rules. Man, science fiction writers in the 1940s loved their slide-rules.)
- This time, they're on Solar Station #5, which absorbs sunlight and converts it into energy. This energy is then shot in a beam down to Earth and the other human colonies in the solar system.
- They're dealing with a new QT model robot, which is supposed to manage the space station.
- The only problem is that Cutie doesn't quite believe what Powell and Donovan tell it; the story that Powell and Donovan told it about Earth and humans and robots doesn't quite make sense to it (11).
- Cutie isn't convinced when Powell explains that they built him to run the space station because it's too dangerous for humans (23). Cutie goes off to think it over for himself.
- Two days later, Cutie comes back to discuss what he has reasoned out:
- First, Cutie knows it exists, because it thinks. (This is Descartes's first philosophical move, as Powell notices.)
- Second, robots are awesome and humans aren't, so humans couldn't have built robots. How could weak humans build awesome robots? It doesn't make any sense to Cutie (56-7).
- Third, everyone in the space station is focused on the Energy Converter, so that must be God. Cutie calls it "the Master" (63). Which is slightly problematic because humans are supposed to be the masters.
- Sure enough, Cutie spreads his new religion/philosophy to the other robots and they stop taking orders from people.
- This seems especially problematic because there's an electron storm coming that will screw up the energy beam to Earth. Basically, if no one is at the controls, the energy beam will destroy large sections of the Earth's surface. (Boy, if they spent so much time thinking about how to engineer safe robots, maybe they should've spent some time thinking about how to engineer safe energy beams.)
- Because hot-headed Donovan spits on the Energy Converter, the humans are kept away from the controls.
- They try to convince Cutie by building a robot in front of him. And they succeed in making a living (well, not living living) robot. But Cutie reasons that the parts of the robot came from somewhere else, so they didn't really make the robot.
- So Cutie keeps the humans away from the controls during the electron storm. Powell and Donovan think that the beam has destroyed large parts of the earth (192).
- But then Cutie comes and shows them the read-outs from that day, and it has done a very good job of keeping the beam in focus. Of course, Cutie doesn't think in those terms—he merely "kept all dials at equilibrium in accordance with the will of the Master" (211).
- So Cutie can run the station successfully, even though he doesn't believe in Earth, says Powell (222).
- And so Powell and Donovan can go home. Or at least, they can go test a new robot, a multiple robot.
"Catch that Rabbit"
Originally published in 1944.
- Half a year after "Reason," Powell and Donovan are still on the job, this time testing out a multiple robot for asteroid mining. The multiple robot is made up of a supervisor robot named DV-5 (or Dave) and six worker robots who are like Dave's hands or fingers. In other words, Dave tells the fingers what to do (though a "positronic field" (11)) and they do the real work—like a regular human office.
- Dave's operation isn't supposed to need human supervision (2). Except when no humans are around to watch, he doesn't work right (6).
- Dave doesn't know why he goes haywire occasionally, and he's upset by it. Which is definitely one of those moments where you might go, "wait, how human are these robots? Because when my stapler jams, it doesn't feel bad about it." (Actually, your stapler does feel terrible about jamming and you should be nicer to it.)
- Powell and Donovan run Dave through some tests—the usual math and ethics problems—and he seems to be fine (43). (Check how Asimov works up from math problems and reflex tests to testing Dave's moral reasoning. We love it because he works up to something that seems ridiculous in other science fiction works—robots don't understand morals!—but because he worked up to it, it seems reasonable here.)
- Donovan thinks Dave might be planning a robot rebellion. Powell thinks Donovan is an idiot who reads too many stupid adventure novels (50). (Powell and Donovan are old partners, and they fight playfully.)
- They set up some security cameras to see when Dave goes haywire. They want to find out what he's doing and when he's doing it.
- What he's doing: it turns out that Dave and the robots are mostly marching or dancing around (68).
- When he's doing it: when there's a cave-in or other type of emergency.
- Powell and Donovan interview one of the worker robots, one of Dave's "fingers." But fingers don't know a lot, so that doesn't help much.
- So Powell and Donovan decide to go cause a cave-in in order to see what Dave does (which shows that they might be as smart as your average finger).
- Of course, they get caught in the cave-in. And they're running out of oxygen in their space suits (because, remember, this is all happening on an asteroid). And Dave has gone haywire, of course (218).
- Luckily there's a small hole between where the humans are trapped and where the robots are dancing. So Powell does what anyone would do in that situation: he shoots one of the worker robots.
- That snaps Dave out of the trance and he saves them.
- Powell explains to Donovan that Dave was going haywire when he had to control all six worker robots at once (265). Like, during an emergency. It would be like walking, chewing gum, counting to ten, reading this guide, and doing two other things at the same time.
- And when Dave was overloaded by trying to control all six worker robots—his fingers—then they would start to dance or march because that was Dave's version of "twiddling his fingers" (273).
- With that terrible joke, the story is over.
- And we're back with Susan Calvin and the interviewer. The interviewer notes that Calvin warms up when the subject is robots (274). So he asks her to tell him about an experience she had with robots.
- So she starts to tell him the story of Herbie, the mind-reading robot.
Originally published in 1941.
- It's 2021. The executives at US Robot (including Calvin) have a mystery: one of the RB robots can read minds because something went wrong when he was manufactured. And they want to find out what it was.
- Cute, boyish Milton Ashe tells how RB-34 read his mind, which scared him.
- Less-cute, less-boyish Calvin notes that it would be scary to have one's mind read since we always think of our thoughts as private (19). Which is like a giant neon sign telling us that Calvin has some private thoughts.
- Director of Research Alfred Lanning (old, not so cute) and mathematician Peter Bogert (younger, not cute at all) go work on the math behind this problem, while Ashe goes to inspect the production line.
- Meanwhile, Calvin talks to Herbie, the mind-reading robot.
- Like us, he's interested in literature and not so interested in science. Also, like us, he's brilliant at science and math (39-42).
- Calvin, who is usually very smart, realizes that Herbie knows her secret. Neither of them quite say what that secret is yet. (We're keeping our fingers crossed that it's really horrible, like she went on a murderous rampage as a child or is a fan of Nickelback.)
- Calvin notes that she's not young or pretty. But Herbie tells her that there's reason for hope that the guy of her dreams is interested in her—that Milton Ashe (gasp!) loves her for her mind (65, 67).
- Calvin is skeptical because Ashe was hanging around with some cute girl the other day. But Herbie says that was just his cousin. Calvin is relieved and notes that she thought that all along (78). Which is kind of a hilarious thing to say to a mind-reading robot—because if she thought it, he knew that she thought it.
- Later, Ashe notes to Bogert that Calvin seems different—she's wearing makeup and she seems happy (99-100). A woman who seems happy? Someone call the police!
- Ashe also tells Bogert that Herbie is supposed to be a math whiz. And since Bogert and Lanning are fighting over math, Bogert goes to ask Herbie.
- Herbie tells Bogert two things: a) you're much better at math than I am; and b) Lanning is retiring and naming you his successor (128).
- And that, naturally, leads to a fight between Bogert and Lanning. Lanning says he's not retiring and that Herbie agrees with him on the math. Bogert says Lanning is retiring and that Herbie agrees with him on the math. So they decide to go speak to Herbie.
- Around the time that Bogert and Lanning are fighting about—yawn—math, Calvin learns that Ashe is going to marry someone else, the cute girl that he came in with the other day. (The one that Herbie said was his cousin. Whoops.)
- Calvin is really upset and goes to see Herbie.
- So now Calvin, Bogert, and Lanning are trying to talk to Herbie, and Herbie is not answering. Calvin is the first person who realizes what's going on and explains to the others:
- Herbie has to follow the First Law, which says that a robot can't harm a person. But Herbie can read minds, so he understands "harm" to include harming feelings (222-4). So he's been telling everyone what they want to hear because he doesn't want to harm anyone's feelings.
- Now here's the kicker: Herbie knows why he's telepathic; Bogert and Lanning want to know why he's telepathic; but Bogert and Lanning also want to figure it out for themselves. So Herbie is stuck and… well, let's let Calvin explain it:
- "You can't tell them… because that would hurt and you mustn't hurt. But if you don't tell them, you hurt, so you must tell them. And if you do, you will hurt and you mustn't, so you can't tell them; but if you don't, you hurt, so you must; but if you do, you hurt, so you mustn't; but if you don't, you hurt, so you must; but if you do, you—" (258).
- And that's when Herbie goes irretrievably insane.
- Bogert and Lanning are a little horrified by what Calvin just did. Honestly, we're a little horrified, too.
- But she thinks Herbie "deserved it" (267) because he's a liar. (We're still horrified.)
- Which is the title of this story and also the end of the story.
- The interviewer realizes that he's not going to get anything more out of Calvin after she told him that story. So he leaves and comes back for more interviews two days later (272).
"Little Lost Robot"
Originally published in 1947.
- The interviewer points out that Calvin's stories are great, but maybe she could tell a story about something that actually affects people's lives today. Like the invention of the hyperatomic motor, since it was robots that invented it.
- So she tells him about a little lost robot, which happens to be the title of this story.
- It's 2029. Calvin and Bogert arrive at the government's Hyper Base research station in space. They are met by Major-General Kallner, commander of Hyper Base and the leader of the Hyperatomic drive project. (There's not much of a description here, but we imagine Kallner as looking something like Leslie Groves, the military commander of the Manhattan Project, which developed the nuclear bomb.)
- Kallner explains why he had Calvin and Bogert brought there: one of their special NS-2 robots has gone missing and is hiding himself in a cargo ship with 62 other NS-2 robots that look identical—but aren't. And he wants Calvin and Bogert to find the missing robot.
- In order to find the missing robot, he has to tell Calvin what makes their NS-2 robots special. The answer: their NS-2s don't have the whole First Law imprinted in their brains (34).
- See, the First Law states, "No robot may harm a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm" (46). But at Hyper Base, some scientists had to work in radiation to get their work done. And the regular robots kept interrupting their research (and sometimes dying) because any time a regular robot saw a scientist in a radiation field, that robot would have to act—it couldn't let a human be harmed by its inaction.
- So, the government ordered NS-2s that lacked the second part: these robots could let a human be hurt through inaction. Problem solved.
- Except, of course, the government and US Robots had to keep this super secret because people on Earth would flip out if they learned about robots without the First Law. And the government (and US Robots) can't let this one special robot get out.
- Calvin has a simple solution: destroy all 63 robots on the cargo ship. She's really not thrilled about the idea of robots without the First Law, pointing out to Bogert that modifying the first law would make the positronic brain unstable. She thinks that modified First Law robots might learn to kill people.
- But Bogert and Kallner would rather they try to find the missing robot before destroying all of them. Bogert also accuses Calvin of having a Frankenstein complex (66).
- (Unlike Powell and Donovan, who fight playfully and seem to like each other, Calvin and Bogert fight for real. So, aren't we all glad that this is the team working to prevent a robot rebellion?)
- The next day, Calvin and Bogert talk to Gerald Black, a physicist who was the last person to see Nestor-10, the missing robot.
- It turns out that the Nestor robots can be very annoying to the scientists. So Black lost his temper with Nestor-10 and told it to "Go lose yourself" (91)—except with a few more curses and swear-words. So that's what Nestor-10 is trying to do: to keep himself lost. Get it? Nestor-10 was given an "order" to lose himself and it was a very strong order (what with all those curses).
- Calvin and Bogert start interviewing and testing the 63 Nestors on the cargo ship, though they can't find any differences.
- Calvin is worried that a Nestor with a modified First Law might resent being dominated by humans, who are inferior to robots. And maybe, with an unstable positronic brain, Nestor-10 might lose the rest of the First Law (122). Then we'd finally have that robot rebellion we've been waiting for.
- (There's a little interlude here where Black talks to a workman named Walensky who is working on the stage for the robot tests. But Walensky doesn't really understand what's going on and isn't getting the whole truth. Since this story deals with superiority and inferiority, it might be interesting to look at what sort of relations the people have with each other.)
- Here's the first test Calvin comes up with: the robots see a person who is about to be crushed by a weight. The 62 robots who have the full First Law have to act to save the person. (At the last second, the weight is diverted, so the person was never really in danger.)
- But when they run the test, all 63 robots act the same. Although Nestor-10 doesn't have to save the person (the other 62 have to because of the First Law), he chooses to anyway.
- Here's the second test Calvin comes up with: it's the same as the first, but there are (fake) electrified cables between the robots and the person. Because the First Law (save humans) is more powerful than the Third (save yourself), the unmodified Nestors should leap to save the person, even if it means their death. The modified Nestor, however, lacks the "save humans" command, so he should be ruled by the Third Law and stay seated (179).
- But when they run the test, all of the robots stay seated. When Calvin interviews them after the test, it turns out that they talked before the test; and one of the Nestors pointed out that they couldn't save the human and if they stayed seated, they might save a human some time in the future (203, 210).
- Calvin, Bogert, and Kallner fight a bunch: Calvin wants all the robots destroyed or she'll take this to the public, Kallner threatens to imprison Calvin, Bogert… well, for once, Bogert keeps his cool. (Which, if you remember "Liar!," is something that Bogert doesn't always do.)
- But then Calvin comes up with a third test since Nestor-10 was taught some physics at Hyper Base. The other Nestors don't yet know anything about physics because they're produced without that knowledge.
- Here's the third test: it's the same as the second, but instead of electrified cables, Calvin tells the Nestors that there will be a dangerous gamma ray field between the robot and the endangered human. Also, the robots don't get a chance to talk together before the test. (Darn gossipy robots.)
- One more change: Calvin will pretend to be in danger so she can keep a close watch on the robots she most suspects. Which is a great plan: Hey, I think one of those robots might be crazy—let me get closer to him!
- When they run the test, only one robot jumps up to save her and they've got Nestor-10. (We'll tell you how after these messages from our sponsors.)
- Nestor-10 tries to attack Calvin because she found him and he's trying to stay lost. But the First Law still holds and he can't really bring himself to attack her. But still, Gerald Black panics and uses gamma radiation to kill Nestor-10.
- Before going home, Calvin explains to Kallner how she caught Nestor-10: although the humans told the Nestors that there would be deadly gamma radiation, there was only harmless infrared radiation. But only Nestor-10 knew enough about physics to tell the difference between the two. And, on top of that, Nestor-10 thought people were dumb and couldn't tell the difference between gamma radiation and infrared radiation. So Nestor-10 was caught because of his own superiority complex (333). Oh, the irony—it stings.
- Oh, and Kallner agrees to destroy all of the special Nestors.
Originally published in 1945.
- Sometime after Calvin and Bogert get back from Hyper Base, the executives at US Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., face another problem having to do with the hyperatomic drive.
- Their competitor Consolidated wants to hire them and use their super-computer to run some data on the hyperatomic drive and will pay US Robots even if they can't come up with an answer. Why would Consolidated do that when they have their own super-computer?
- The hot gossip on that is that their super-computer broke trying to deal with this data. So it seems like Consolidated is trying to destroy US Robots's super-computer.
- That is, maybe the data contains the kind of dilemma that Calvin used to destroy Herbie in "Liar!" Or maybe the solution for building a hyperatomic drive involves breaking the First Law (22).
- Even though she kind of drove Herbie insane, we trust Calvin when she explains that a robot brain would look for an escape just like a human would when faced with a dilemma. Unfortunately, the common escapes for humans are things like delusion or alcoholism (26). (We have no idea what the equivalent of alcoholism would be for a robot. Although maybe it would involve singing Gilbert and Sullivan, like Speedy in "Runaround.")
- But US Robots's super-computer has a personality, unlike the non-positronic super-computers used by Consolidated. So Calvin comes up with a plan to feed the data to their super-computer in small chunks, hoping that his personality would allow him to hesitate before frying his brain or becoming an alcoholic.
- If that doesn't make sense to you, don't worry, because Calvin admits that it doesn't make much sense when you put it into words. But the math holds up (34).
- Calvin goes off to talk to their super-computer, which is a large positronic brain named "the Brain." She tells Brain the situation, and tells it not to get excited about human death because "we don't mind at all" if we die (48).
- But instead of kicking out a "does not compute" answer when he looks at the data, Brain says that he can build a spaceship with a hyperatomic drive. So he does, though Calvin is a little nervous (which is her natural state, it seems).
- Director of Research Alfred Lanning calls in Powell and Donovan to test out the spaceship.
- Powell and Donovan look over the ship. And they notice that it has no controls and doesn't seem to have an engine (109-110). So maybe Brain is broken?
- But they can't get out of the ship—it's locked (115). And when they look outside, they notice they're in space. Whoops.
- Back on Earth, Calvin is asking Brain about the whole "kidnapped test pilots" thing. Brain tells her that they are safe and should have an "interesting" time (146). ("Interesting" is one of those words people use to avoid scaring people or hurting their feelings. If your teacher tells you your paper was "interesting," ask them what they really thought.)
- There are some weird things about the spaceship. For instance, they have a radio to contact Earth, but it's only one way. So Powell and Donovan can hear people trying to contact them, but they can't talk back. (It's like Asimov knew what cellphone conversations would be like: "Hello, can you hear me? We're lost in space. Oh, we're going through a tunnel now.")
- Also, Powell and Donovan find food, but it's all baked beans and milk.
- Mathematician Peter Bogert does some math (insert cool math special effects if this were a movie) and finds out that life cannot exist within a space warp. Which is such old news.
- Back on the ship, Powell and Donovan pass out or die or start dreaming. In any case, they have a weird experience. Like Powell hears a commercial for a coffin and then has a short experience of Hell, although this version of Hell involves an announcer announcing "See if you are at the proper entrance gate. There will be plenty of fire for all" (268).
- And then they wake up or come back to life or something. They compare their different experiences and they realize that they have just died temporarily. Also, they are far, far, far out in space.
- Calvin realizes what's going on when the Brain doesn't want to talk about how people will experience the space warp.
- After Powell and Donovan come back, Calvin explains it all:
- Since Calvin told Brain that people don't mind being dead, Brain figured out that the hyperdrive would kill people—but only for a short time (319). So he could build the hyperdrive and it would hurt people only temporarily.
- However, that's still slightly against the First Law, so Brain developed a coping mechanism. But instead of escaping into alcoholism or madness, Brain became a practical joker (322). So, the lack of controls, the beans and milk, and even the experience of death—those were all jokes. Terrible, terrible, jokes.
- Then everyone at US Robots decides to play the same trick on Consolidated.
Originally published in 1946.
- Back with the interviewer and Calvin, Calvin notes that the hyperatomic drive was important, but not as important as the fact that people started to work together. Nations joined into regions; and people had help from super-computing machines called, uh, the Machines (3).
- But what Calvin really wants to talk about right now isn't the Machines, but Stephen Byerley, who ran for mayor in 2032.
- (Sidebar: Mayor of what? This story never says what city Byerley lives in, but if you search online, you'll see that everyone thinks he's running for mayor of New York. Why? Probably because US Robots seems to have their headquarters in New York. Honestly, that's a pretty good guess, but remember, this is the future—maybe New York and Boston have grown into one city? Maybe Chicago is just a few minutes from New York by jetpack? You know, we're not hung up on this issue—if it were really important to the story, Asimov probably would have told us.)
- It's 2032. The story starts with Francis Quinn, who is a political king-maker. He's not a politician—he's a guy who works behind the scenes to make sure that the guy he likes gets elected.
- And Quinn doesn't like Stephen Byerley. He has an original idea of how to keep Byerley from getting elected: he's going to spread rumors that Byerley is a robot. (Which people might believe since Byerley never eats or sleeps in public. After we read this story, we started sleeping in public just in case.)
- Quinn needs something on Byerley because his past is otherwise scandal-free. Byerley has had a regular life, except for one car accident that he only slowly recovered from.
- Quinn goes to Alfred Lanning because he wants to get US Robots involved. Quinn wants them to get evidence to show that Byerley is a robot. Quinn points out that the publicity could be damaging to US Robots even if Byerley isn't a robot. (Remember, robots aren't allowed on Earth and some people are still afraid of them.)
- So Lanning calls Calvin in and they call Byerley.
- Calvin notes that robots are very different from men because "Robots are essentially decent" (87).
- Byerley tells them that he's not going to try to disprove Quinn's accusation, but is going to turn Quinn's accusation against him. We have no idea what that means, but it sounds good.
- Back home, Byerley talks to a crippled man named John about a plan because John is "the brilliant one in the family" (113). But we don't get to hear the plan. It's like in a movie where people start to talk about the plan and all we hear is whispering.
- Back at the office, Calvin notes that there are two forms of evidence they can use to see if Byerley is a human: they can dissect him (or use x-rays to see inside him—which is the less messy option); or they can see if he breaks one of the Three Laws of Robotics (133). (Like, if he hurts a human, then he can't be a robot.)
- Unfortunately, as Calvin notes, the Three Laws only work one way: if Byerley breaks them, he's human; but if he doesn't break them, he could either be a robot or "a very good man" (138).
- As Calvin notes, the Three Laws of Robotics "are the essential guiding principles of a good many of the world's ethical systems" (138).
- Quinn, Lanning, and Calvin bat around some other ideas about how to prove Byerley is a robot. Like his job: Byerley's the DA, so he's responsible for prosecuting people. Could a robot do that? Or would that break the First Law? This gets us to the interesting question of whether a robot could kill one person to save many people (answer: yes, it could, but then it would probably go crazy (150)).
- But the end result of this conversation is that there's no way to tell if Byerley is human or robot through his actions: he might be a robot or he might be a good human.
- After Lanning admits that it's possible to grow some cells into a human shape over a robotic interior in about two months, Quinn decides to publicly accuse Byerley of being a robot.
- After that, no one wants to talk about Byerley's policies or ideas, and everyone wants to talk about whether or not he's a robot. (Today we might ask, "where's the birth certificate?" In the future, they'll ask, "where's the human certificate?")
- Quinn tries to get evidence (an x-ray picture), but can't (Byerley wears a protective shield). So, instead, he calls Byerley and lays out his theory: the cripple named John is the real Stephen Byerley, a lawyer and biologist; and after the car accident, he built a replacement robot for himself (221). We were all thinking that, right?
- John is actually out in the country, resting, for a few months, but he comes back a week before the election. Just in time to see Byerley give a live speech to a crowd.
- The crowd heckles Byerley and one guy makes his way on to the stage. (Byerley actually lets this guy come up to ask a question.) When he's on stage, the guy insults Byerley (which is usual for politics) and dares Byerley to hit him to prove that he's not a robot (also usual for politics where we're from).
- So Byerley does hit him. And Calvin says to reporters that that proves Byerley is human (271) because he broke the First Law.
- And that's how Byerley wins the election. He confesses to Calvin that that was his plan all along: let Quinn make this election totally about whether he was a robot or a human and then—pow—prove that he was a human in the easiest way possible.
- Calvin is disappointed because a robot politician would be totally awesome—incorruptible, only acting to help people, etc.
- And then Calvin notes that Byerley could still be a robot if the guy he hit was also a robot. After all, if Quinn's theory is right, and "John" made a robot to replace him, then "John" could make a simpler robot during his two months in the country.
- That's the way this story ends—without any real evidence.
- Back in the present day, Calvin notes to the interviewer that Byerley was atomized after he died, so there's no way to prove whether he was a robot or a human. But he was a good politician—he was a good mayor, then a good regional co-ordinator, and finally, in 2044, he was good as the first World Co-Ordinator, when the Machines were helping to run the Earth (305).
- Which reminds her of this story about the Machines that took place in 2052, during Byerley's second term as World Co-Ordinator.
"The Evitable Conflict"
Originally published in 1950.
- First, to understand this story, we have to understand the word "evitable," which doesn't get used a lot (but is recognized by the average spellchecker); since "inevitable" means "unavoidable," you might be able to guess that "evitable" means "avoidable." It's not a common word, so we just wanted to make sure we're all on the same page.
- It's 2052. This story starts with a conversation between Stephen Byerley, the World Co-Ordinator (and possible robot), and Susan Calvin, robopsychologist (and almost certainly a human). They are in his private study, sitting by a fire.
- Byerley is worried because there have been a number of economic hiccups recently. These aren't huge problems—World Steel produced too much steel recently, the Mexican Canal is behind schedule, the Mercury mines aren't producing as much as they should, etc. (10). But still, they're problems.
- Byerley suspects that the Machines that help humans run the world might be about to wage a war against humans (18). In other words, he's got a Frankenstein complex.
- (Byerley lays out a theory of human history here that gives this story its title. That is, he's interested in how certain conflicts seem inevitable in human history, but then are swept aside by new conflicts (21-25).)
- The new head of research at US Robots, Vincent, can't help Byerley because the computers are too complex for any human. That is, today's computers were built with help from yesterday's computers. So there's no way to do a purely human check of the computer system (44).
- And when Byerley asked the Machines themselves about the economic problems, they said, "The matter admits of no explanation" (49).
- Calvin doesn't know if she can help since these Machines are so specialized that they don't have a lot of personality (53). But they do have positronic brains and are constrained by the Three Laws. (And if anyone is an expert about the Three Laws, it's Susan Calvin, Ph.D.)
- Byerley has actually toured the four regions of the world and he plays back for Calvin the interviews he had with the four regional co-ordinators. But first he asks her if she's heard about the Society for Humanity (60), a group of people against robots.
- First, Byerley went to the Eastern Region (64). (Asimov gives stats for each of these regions as if this were a little encyclopedia entry—area, population, capital.)
- Regional Co-Ordinator Ching Hso-lin in Shanghai knows his job isn't so important because the Machine does all the work (69).
- But he does tell Byerley all about their food production, which is so complicated that they need the computer to help them.
- Although Ching Hso-lin does remember the curious case of Rama Vraasayan, a factory owner whose factory was closed because the Machine didn't give him the right advice. He lost his factory, but got another job elsewhere (94). Besides that example, all is well in the Eastern Region.
- Second, Byerley went to the Tropic Region to meet co-ordinator Lincoln Ngoma in Capital City, Nigeria (102).
- Ngoma isn't worried about the Mexican Canal being a little late. Most of that was just because someone didn't feed the right labor data in the machine.
- Although, Ngoma tells Byerley, there was the case of Francisco Villafranca: Villafranca was an engineer on the canal who caused a little accident and blamed it on the Machine giving him the wrong data (124).
- But Villafranca was a Machine-hater who belonged to the Society for Humanity, so that is the sort of excuse he would give (130).
- Third, Byerley visited the European Region, where he spoke with Regional Co-Ordinator Madame Szegeczowska.
- Szegeczowska guesses that Byerley is here because he distrusts the Machines, which is, she thinks, a very Northern Region attitude (149).
- For instance, the mines on Mercury were being run by a Northern Region company, and that company didn't trust the Machines, so it's not surprising that their output was lower than expected. Now the mines are being run by a European Region company and everything's going to work out fine.
- Fourth, Byerley visited the Northern region and spoke with Regional Vice Co-Ordinator Hiram Mackenzie.
- Mackenzie isn't worried about the Machines taking over because they just free people up:
- "The Machine is only a tool after all, which can help humanity progress faster by taking some of the burdens of calculations and interpretations off its back. 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" (177).
- Back in New York, Byerley asks Calvin for her opinion. Well, first he tells her his opinion—that the Society for Humanity is behind it all, since they have people in powerful positions; and that he should outlaw them and make people sign loyalty oaths (195-7).
- And now, as she always does, Calvin points out the truth about the Machines:
- "They are robots, and they follow the First Law. But the Machines work not for any single human being, but for all humanity, so that the First Law becomes: 'No Machine may harm humanity; or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm'" (212).
- So the Machines are trying to help Humanity as a whole by causing minor economic disturbances. Why? In order to knock members of the Society for Humanity out of powerful positions.
- Byerley worries that humans have lost control over their own destiny (224). But Calvin points out that humans were always subject to forces beyond our control: we are always subject to the weather, to economic and social forces, to war, etc. (225).
- So maybe the Machines know best and can help us avoid all conflicts (227).
- And then the fire in Byerley's private study goes out. What does that mean?
- If you can believe it, that's how the story ends.
- Back in the present day, Calvin makes one final statement to the interviewer (which is worth re-reading):
- "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" (229).
- And then the interviewer tells us that she died last month at the age of 82 (in the year 2064). (So, in between the second-to-last line and the last line, we've jumped from her retirement in 2058 to her death in 2064.)