Isaac Asimov may not have invented the word ‘robot’ (that honour goes to the Capek brothers) but his book series pushed the robot into our collective consciousness as no other piece of popular entertainment has done. Most notably, I, Robot opened everyone’s eyes to how interesting robots could be. And for Asimov himself, it was the diminutive start of an illustrious writing career that would last for decades.
The book is nothing like the 2004 film, at all. For one thing, it is a series of nine short stories, each one dealing with new social consequences of robots.
And here we come to the famous “Three Laws of Robotics” in the book, which state that robots may not injure humans and so on. This idea is often presented in the sense of “look how clever it was of Asimov to invent these laws”, but it is even cleverer of Asimov that these laws constantly fall short in his stories. There are loopholes in everything. The ultimate achievement of Asimov in I, Robot is not that he invented the Three Laws as an illustration on how humans and robots could conceivably live together in harmony. His achievement is that even with such laws in place, life is complex, issues will arise, and humans trying to live with robots is an unpredictable road to go down on.
I liked this book much, much more than I thought I would, because of two reasons. First, a framing device that works wonders. Each story is set a little bit farther into the future (as remembered by an ageing robo-psychologist) and so the robots become more and more complex as we work through the book. At first they’re not much more than toys, but after a while you indeed need a psychologist to figure out their problems. It paints a picture of a larger story of societal change. I liked the diversity of robot jobs, such as nursemaid, miner, technician and even a false prophet with a messiah complex.
Secondly, each story is like an ingenious logic puzzle where the experts try to figure out why robots are behaving weirdly, even with the three Laws of Robotics in place. Even though Asimov didn’t predict the rise of the digital world, he perfectly describes the feeling of trying to figure out why a program isn’t doing what you thought it would do.
Is the writing dated? Yes. The sentences don’t always flow so smoothly, the dialogue is a bit stilted and the husband and wife interactions are old-fashioned. I just accepted this as par for the course of reading an old book and Asimov just started out as a writer. English wasn’t even his mother tongue. Instead I focused on the interesting ideas and plots.
I, Robot is not just a bunch of stories about robots; it is the story of humanity learning to live with an all-purpose companion species. This is something that humanity may actually have to do in the future with the rise of AI and/or genetic manipulation, probably taking vastly different forms than Asimov could foresee in the 1940s. His stories would then still work, metaphorically.
After all these years, still a good read. Even better now that the covers with Will Smith have disappeared.