Sci-Fi Discussion – I, Robot by Isaac Asimov

Thank you to everyone who came to the Manchester Sci-Fi Book Club meeting on Tuesday. As usual, we had an interesting, enlightening and fun discussion about this month’s book. We also had pizza.

I, Robot

This month we read Sci-Fi classic I, Robot by Isaac Asimov.

This is a collection of short stories about robots brought together with narration from one of the central characters, robopsychologist Susan Calvin. Being that the book is written by a grandmaster of sci-fi, and that it is about robots, it came as no surprise that it is overwhelmingly popular amongst us all!

What do we like about I, Robot?

We like it because it’s an easy read with diverse stories that can be read seperately, but which are brought together as a progression through a series of robot stories. The three laws which robots must obey, seem simple, but when it comes commanding robots people need to be specific otherwise things soon become tricky, creating mind bending puzzles for our robot experts to solve.

The three laws attempt to make us understand what being a human is all about, which is important considering that they were devised by Asimov around the time of World War II. Indeed, there is no difference between a good human and robot obeying the three laws.

Its fun and snappy, and most importantly, its about robots!

Was there anything that we didn’t like? Copies of the book that have Will Smith on the cover since the film is not based upon the book!

Robots in Society

Asimov covers the subject of the use of robots in society. In his stories they are restricted to off-planet use because of public concern over them. Today non-humanoid robots are routinely used for specific jobs, e.g. in manufaturing, but at the time when these stories were written robots were not around. However, the robots in the book are much more advanced than our robots and they were humanoid. We wondered whether the acceptance and popularity of robots could be down to their part in Science Fiction?

Technology Comparison

In one of the stories, called “Little Lost Robot”, one robot, which has been modified with a reduced version of the first law, looses himself amongst 60 or so visually identical robots. Incidentally, this is the only part of the story which is echoed in the Will Smith film of the same title. Robopsychologist Susan Calvin tries to catch the robot out through a series of challenges. CCTV would have helped here, but it would have been a much easier task had the robots been barcoded!

We also noted that whilst the robots has sophisticated brains there were no personal computers in the stories. The science of the positronic brains was not discussed, indeed the robots experts in the stories did not really seem to know how they worked either.

In the story “Robbie” they had hover cars yet one of the characters noted that people had not been to the moon. We were upset that we have been to the moon but that we do not have hover cars!

Written in the 1940s, “Robbie” was set in 2008. Most of the other stories written in the 1950s and 60s were set in 2050s, by which time they not only had sophisticated robots but also hyper nuclear space rockets. We concluded that as far as technological advancement is concerned, humanity better get a move on!

The Three Laws and Humanity
  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

We wondered whether the three laws formed a parallel for how humans could be better people, particularly with reference to the times in history when the stories were written when we had the second World War and in the USA there were Civil Rights Issues and The McCarthy Witch Hunts. In the story “The Evitable Conflict” robot brains control the world economy and everybody lives happily in a controlled society, which led us to speculate that Asimov could have held communist ideals. Maybe we were reading too much into that one!

Questions were also raised about the rights of the robots themselves. If robots think and feel then are the three laws unfair on robots and do they make robots slaves? Issues of robot ownership were also a hot topic leading us to question whether robots should be doing their owners hoovering or whether they should be doing the hoovering for the whole of mankind?

A large part of the stories involved robots becoming confused by how much weight to give each of the three laws when deciding upon a course of action. This indecision could lead to robots have mental breakdowns. We concluded that if we had such robots in our society, confusing robots would become something of a game for teenagers!

The Main Characters

Robopsychologist Susan Calvin is the main character. Whilst in The Complete Robot Asimov reveals that he had fallen in love with Susan Calvin, opinions of her at mcrsf fell somewhat short of this. They can be summed up as “a paranoid cow who needs conunselling”. Indeed it was commented upon that most of the women in I, Robot were irritating.

Donovan and Powell featured in several of the stories. One positive and the other a grumpy get, they would argue about which wayto go, then go off in completely different direction. It was alledged that muppets Bert and Ernie were based upon the robot troubleshooting duo.

We felt that Stephen Byerley was a robot, although the fact that he did get older in “The Evitable Conflict” did introduce some doubt.

Final Comments and Further Reading

I, Robot is a popular and very readable book with a likeable style, but, Jumping Jupiter, the dialogue is a bit dated.

If you like I, Robot two other Asimov titles will be of interest, they are Caves of Steel and Naked Sun. Both contain human-robot interaction and three law puzzles.

Manchester Sci-Fi Book Club Contacts

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Keep up to date with Manchester Sci-Fi book club posts at Madlab:
http://madlab.org.uk/content/tag/mcrsf/

We also have a group on Google which we would encourage you to join.

Sci-Fi Books for following months are:

Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold advocate Trialia

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K Dick advcoate Sarah-Clare Conlon

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem advocate Naomi Jacobs

Snow Crash by Neil Stevenson advocate Simon Carter

Anvil of the Stars by Greg Bear

Guest blogger : Daniel Wells

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