Study Guide

I, Robot "Evidence"

By Isaac Asimov


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.