Sunday, August 16, 2015

Those Amazing Robots

I, Robot (1950) by Isaac Asimov, a short-story cycle/paste-up novel consisting of the following stories:

  • Introduction (I, Robot)(1950)
  • Robbie (1940)(aka Strange Playfellow)
  • Runaround (1942)
  • Reason (1944) 
  • Catch That Rabbit (1947)
  • Liar!   (1941)
  • Little Lost Robot (1944)
  • Escape!   (1945) 
  • Evidence   (1946) 
  • The Evitable Conflict   (1950)

Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics have infiltrated human consciousness, known at least partially even to people who've never read Asimov or even seen the Will Smith movie loosely based on this paste-up novel. Asimov's editor at Astounding in the 1940's, the great John W. Campbell, Jr., helped Asimov formulate the Three Laws. And the first publisher of this paste-up lifted the title from an Eando Binder story that helped inspire Asimov, against Asimov's wishes.

However, Asimov codified for many a rational approach to robots and computers that defied the way artificial creations had generally been depicted all the way back to Frankenstein. Robots were created by humans and could thus be made safe. It was all a matter of programming. In a world in which cars didn't have seat-belts, it was actually a weirdly gigantic cognitive leap.

While we don't have helpful, anthropomorphic robots yet, we do have smartphones and smarthomes and smartcars. And Asimov's robots still work as a stand-in for any technological marvel become mundane through overuse, or potentially sinister through technological evolution. Many of these stories detailing the rise of the robots work as mystery stories, as the intrepid investigators and robopsychologists of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. try to figure out why a new and improved robot is acting screwy.

Screwy as they may act, though, only one of our robots comes to pose a threat to humanity, and that's thanks to the military changing its programming, to the horror of the closest thing this novel has to a human protagonist, the brilliant robopsychologist Susan Calvin. Calvin is one of science fiction's first female protagonists to also be a scientist and not, say, the wife or girlfriend of a scientist. This is quite a leap for Asimov and the genre. Calvin's oft-cited asexuality can get a bit annoying -- can't smart girls have romance? -- but it nonetheless works as a welcome tonic to standard portrayals of women, in or out of the science-fiction genre, in the 1940's.

The world Asimov postulates hasn't come to be, though portions of it may, if we have any sense. And as the stories progress, the larger robot brains become stationary -- become computers. The last 'robot' in the story, dubbed The Machine, is a benevolent world-organizer. I'd guess that Person of Interest creator Jonathan Nolan, working on an adaptation of Asimov's Foundation, was tipping a hat to Asimov with that series' benevolent A.I., known only also as The Machine.

Asimov's robots, in all their endearing solicitude and helpfulness, may endure in some form or another forever. Certainly the work will, and its continuing influence on almost anyone who writes about artificial intelligence. The stories also tackle anti-robot prejudice (people on Earth fear that human-form robots will take their jobs, and so only non-human-form robots have the run of Earth... which wouldn't save anyone's jobs, now that I think about it, though that's partially the point about irrational fears). Asimov even intuits the rising tendency of modern tech companies to 'lease' rather than sell their products (albeit those products tend to be songs and software, not helpful robots) -- U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men lease their robots but never sell them.

Like many older works of science fiction, I, Robot has its moments of comically wrong-guessing and wince-inducing characterization. But it holds up beautifully as both a fast-paced series of adventures and as an exploration of how humanity and technology inter-relate over time and progress. Highly recommended.

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