Sunday, January 20, 2013

Isaac Asimov's Robots

           In my last post, I mentioned that another writer had appropriated the title of Isaac Asimov's classic book I, Robot, which Asimov (or his publisher) had already appropriated from a classic short story by Earl and Otto (EandO) Binder.
     It occurs to me, however, that many of you have never read Asimov's book, even if it is a classic (Mark Twain described a classic as “A book which people praise and don't read”), so here's some background.
    Isaac Asimov was an author who began his career writing science fiction in 1938. One of his earliest published stories, inspired by Binder’s “I, Robot,” was “Robbie,” about a robot child minder. Heretofore -- with a few exceptions such as Binder’s story and Lester del Rey's Helen O'Loy” -- robots were often portrayed as dangerous creations that turn on their makers and commit murder and mayhem. Asimov reasoned that, like all machines, there would logically be safeguards built in to prevent this, and a robot could take care of a little girl just as well as an adult human, maybe better. In that story, he only explained it as Robbie was “made so,” though later he formalized these safeguards as the Three Laws of Robotics.
     From memory, the Three Laws of Robotics are that, one, a robot cannot harm a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm; two, a robot must obey any orders given to it by a human as long as those orders don’t conflict with the first law; and three, that a robot must protect its own existence, as long as this doesn’t conflict with the first or second laws.
    So, if a robot is standing in the street and a speeding vehicle is coming at it, it must get out of the way unless a human ordered it to stand there or if getting out of the way would harm a human.
     (Incidentally, Asimov used the term robotics thinking it was a pre-existing word. It wasn’t, but now it is used.)
     Asimov also referred to his robots as having positronic brains, but this wasn’t based on good science. He just did it to sound different and futuristic.
      Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics stories mostly dealt with Susan Calvin, a robopsychologist who worked for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men and troubleshot problems with human/robot interactions.
      I, Robot collected nine of Asimov’s positronic robot stories, and created a framing device in which a reporter asks Susan Calvin about her career at U.S. Robots as she prepares to retire. Linking material makes the stories seem more like chapters, and bits of the stories are changed as well. It’s sometimes a little clumsy (I prefer the originals), but the individual stories are quite good. Among my favorites are:
     “Reason,” about a robot, assembled on a space station, who concludes that fragile, weak humans couldn’t have created it, a clearly superior being.
     “Liar,” about the accidental creation of a mind-reading robot, and how the Three Laws affect how it interprets and relays what it reads in our minds.
     “Little Lost Robot,” about a robot told to “get lost,” and how it enacts this insult literally.
     “Evidence,” about a politician, accused of being a robot, who tries to prove he’s human without submitting to privacy-violating medical tests.
     Asimov went on to write many more robot stories, including several involving future Earth policeman Lige Baley and his alien, humanoid-looking robot and sometime partner Daneel Olivaw (the best of which are the first two: The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun).
     One story became a particularly bad film: The Bicentennial Man.” Although the story was written about the time of the nation's bicentennial, it had nothing to do with that event (it was written for an anthology of that title, with no proscription as to how the title was to be interpreted). Instead,  Asimov wrote the 200-year history of a robot, created with Asimov's Three Laws, that develops a mind of its own and wants to become human. The film makes it a mostly funny story with a cutesy Robin Williams robot, but the story, while sentimental, is serious. Maybe the title had something to do with the director's decision to go that way (a novel, expanded from the story by Robert Silverberg, changed the title to The Positronic Man)
     All of Asimov's robot stories were originally collected in I, Robot and The Rest of the Robots, but Asimov kept writing more. Those stories and additional ones were included in The Complete Robot and, later, many of the same ones were in Robot Visions.
     Critic and author James Gunn  observed that, despite continuing characters and the same general background, Asimov's robot stories don't all quite fit in the same timeline. Gunn called them variations on a robot. The best of them also are mysteries of a sort: Why did the robot malfunction? and How can the problem be solved or fixed?
     Since Asimov's death in 1992, much of his backlog has become harder to find, but libraries usually have a good assortment of his books, and some of them are becoming available as e-books. Doubleday published many of these originally, and is now part of Random House


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