'I Robot' is a collection of short stories written in the 40’s and 50’s, originally as stand alone short stories in Science Fiction magazines but here they are published as a collection. In these stories the nature and principles of robots are examined in detail probably for the first time.
It is interesting how Asimov viewed a future society incorporating robots. In this future Robots are built to look like humans, whereas in our own world robots are machines adapted for specific tasks and rarely resemble humans. Asimov argued that since robots were to take over manual work from humans and that most machine designed to help with manual work were designed for use by humans then the robots would be built to be human like, to drive cars, cook the meal, vacuum the house etc. Maybe this type of robot is still to come.
The brilliance of the stories is not in their predictive accuracy of the future, Arthur C Clarke was far better at that, but in the interesting paradoxes that Asimov included in his stories. In most of the 'pulp' Science Fiction that preceded or was contemporary to Asimov the idea of robots dealt essentially with two extremes. One was a vision that had not moved further than the 'Frankenstein' concept where humans trying to be like gods create a machine in their own image and inevitably realise they have crated a 'monster'. The other was a Utopian view where robots had become the perfect tools for humans and provided human society with an inexhaustible supply of cheap reliable labour. Few authors before Asimov tried to deal with the complexities that this Utopian view entailed. How would robots move beyond the laboratory into everyday life? How would people view robots? Would they be a useful technology to make life better or a threat to jobs and our way of life? How would conscious robots view themselves and their role in society?
Robots eventually would become better at many tasks than their human masters and be physically stronger.
Out of necessity they would need to be able to have some consciousness or free will and thus they could pose a grave danger to human society maybe realising the old 'Frankenstein' scenario. Some safeguards would have to be built in to the very essence of the robots thinking that would ensure that they would always be under the control of humans and pose no threat. Asimov proposed that the most logical way to do this was to integrate in to their mechanical brains (The Positronic Brain) a set of algorithms, representing unbreakable ‘laws’ that would limit their actions and thoughts. Any failure to obey these laws would result in an irreversible 'shut down' of the brain.
The laws known as the Three Laws of Robotics are as follows:
LAW1 A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
LAW2 A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law.
LAW3 A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first or second law.
On the face of it these are sufficient to ensure the dominance of humans over the machines but it is a premise that Asimov goes on to question throughout all the short stories in this collection.