This collection of short stories tells the history of the invention and gradual improvement of robots. The robots in this future must follow the 3 Laws of Robotics:
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
But following these laws doesn’t always have quite the outcome the inventors and managers of robots intended.
I wasn’t aware I, Robot is actually a short story collection. It’s precisely the type I enjoy though because they all work together to tell one overarching story in order. Beginning with the earliest robots, they slowly move up through important points in the history of robotics to lead up to the world run by big brain machine robots that Asimov has imagined. This collection is a prequel of sorts (and of many) to Asimov’s robot series that begins with The Caves of Steel (list of entire series).
One thing I like about the world Asimov sets up is that unlike many scifi books featuring AI, the people in Asimov’s world are highly, intensely cautious of robots. They’re very concerned about robots taking jobs, killing humans, and even robbing humans of their autonomy. It sets up a conflict from the beginning and frankly presents the humans as just a bit more intelligent than in some AI scifi universes.
I was under the impression from pop culture that in I, Robot they think they’re protected by the Laws of Robotics but something happens so that the robots aren’t programmed with them any longer. That’s not what happens at all. What happens is much more complex. How the robots interpret the Laws and how the Laws work end up being much more complex and less straight-forward than the humans originally imagined, so much so that they have to have a robopsychologist to help them interpret what’s going on with the robots. This is really quite brilliant and is one of my favorite aspects of the book.
Unfortunately, the book can read a bit sexist sometimes, in spite of having a female protagonist through quite a bit of the book. (The robopsychologist is a woman). The book was first published in 1950, though, so when you think about the time period, the sexism is pretty minor, especially compared to having a female worldwide expert on robopsychology. The main time sexism comes up is when the leader of Europe is a woman and says some self-deprecating things about difficulty leading because she’s a woman. Yes, there is older scifi that avoids sexism pretty much entirely, but I am able to give this instance a bit of a pass considering the other strong portrayal of a woman in a leadership role. But be aware that at least one cringe-inducing sexist conversation does occur.
Overall, this piece of classic scifi stands the test of time extraordinarily well. Its film adaptations do not do it proper service at all. Come to this book expecting a collection of short stories exploring robopsychology, not an action flick about killer robots. Recommended to scifi fans.
4 out of 5 stars
Source: Harvard Books