“I, Robot” is the title of a 1950 novel by the famous science fiction author Isaac Asimov. The novel consists of a collection of short stories all bound together by the pretense that they are being told for an interview with the elderly, successful robopsychologist Susan Calvin in the year 2052. The stories were originally separate, however and appeared in two different American magazines called: Super Science Stories and Astounding Science Fiction between 1940 and 1950.
Each story is about a different robot and each story contains the themes of morality, humanity and technology. Together, the stories provide a fictional history of a world that goes from the early stages of robotic development in the year 1998 to a full-robot related government in 2052.
Every story is told by Susan Calvin and each is a tale of some aberrant behavior that a robot was experiencing and how it taught the scientists at the fictional corporation US Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. more about the minds of robots and allowed them to leap forward in technological advancement. Many ideas and phrases were invented by Asimov for the book which later made it into popular culture, including the book’s Three Laws of Robotics which revolutionized the science fiction genre.
The novel begins by outlining the three laws of robotics as demonstrated in the “Handbook of Robotics,” 56th edition, 2058 AD.
The laws are:
“1 – A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2 – A robot must obey the orders given to it by it’s human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3 – A robot must protect its existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”
An unnamed narrator gives us background information about a woman named Susan Calvin who was a very famous robot psychologist at US Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. Both Susan Calvin and Robots and Mechanical Men Inc. were born/created in 1982, which makes them seventy-five years old at the beginning of the novel.
The narrator tells us that Susan was the “first great practitioner of a new science” and that people tend to think that she is as cold and distant as the metal men that she creates. Susan has been working at the company for fifty years and is now retiring. The narrator has been asked to interview her about her experiences with robots. Among other things, Susan says: “You may think a robot is a robot. Gears and metal; electricity and positrons – Mind and iron! Human-Made! If necessary, human-destroyed! But you haven’t worked with them, so you don’t know them. They’re a cleaner better breed than we are.”
Susan says that she is going to tell a story about a robot nursemaid from 1998 to illustrate this.
The first story in the book takes place in the year 1998. There is a little robot named Robbie who is the caretaker and playmate of a human girl named Gloria Weston. Gloria and Robbie are great friends and play together often.
Gloria’s mother, Mrs. Weston wants to get rid of Robbie as she worries that the robot may hurt her daughter one day. However, her husband, George thinks that her worries are unfounded. He reminds her that Robbie cannot hurt Gloria as it would conflict with the First Law of robotics and that for this reason he is safer than any human. Eventually, Gloria’s mother, Grace wears her husband down and the couple decide to get rid of Robbie one day when Gloria is out seeing a “visivox”.
Gloria is heartbroken when she realizes that Robbie is gone and argues with her mother. The Westons try to cheer Gloria up by taking her on a trip to New York City. While in the city, the family see a Talking Robot exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. This exhibit consists of a very large, room-sized computer that answers questions and speaks to guests. Gloria asks the computer if it knows where Robbie is and the computer experiences a malfunction as it is unable to process the idea of other robots existing. Susan Calvin reveals that she was nearby during this exchange and overheard it. Witnessing this gives her an idea for a paper.
The trip to New York City does not cheer Gloria up and her parents are at a loss for how to do so without bringing Robbie back. George gets an idea to go to a robot factory so that Gloria can see the robots being made and realize that they are just machines and that Robbie was not a real person. However, he does not realize that Robbie has been put to work in the factory and when Gloria sees him she rushes toward him and is almost run over by a tractor. Robbie sees her running toward him, sees the tractor headed for her and rushes to save her, reaching her faster than any human could have. This miraculous save shocks everyone. Grace realizes that Robbie is more than just a machine and agrees to let him come back and live with them again.
After Susan is done telling this story, she begins another one. After US Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc. created talking robots and robots that could move, humans banned robots from Earth out of fear. In response, the company made robots for space and the Mercury mines. But the first test of the new robots did not go smoothly.
It’s the year 2015 and two scientists named Gregory Powell and Micheal Donovan are on Mercury. The scientists realize that the robot that they sent out to get an element named selenium has not yet returned. As this element is needed to fix the “photo-cell banks” on the station and thus, keep it operational, the scientists are concerned.
The robot, named Speedy is circling a pool of selenium, stuck in this command. Powell and Donovan cannot go out onto the surface of the planet for more than twenty minutes at a time as this is how long their “inso-suits” will protect them from the boiling hot solar rays. The scientists have other robots from failed expeditions in the past, but these models are over ten years old and are only able to move if a human is operating them by riding them.
Speedy is malfunctioning spectacularly. He is circling around and around, wobbling and singing Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Powell and Donovan use the Three Laws of Robotics to work out what is wrong with Speedy. Speedy is acting this way because his programming of the laws is in conflict with itself. As Speedy is a very expensive robot, his Third Law programming – to protect himself – was strengthened more than other robots. There is toxic gas near the selenium pool and the order that was given to Speedy was received as being casual. Speedy is divided between a casual order and his need to protect himself. He cannot get the selenium and he cannot leave so he goes around the pool over and over.
Powell realizes that the only way to snap Speedy out of this is to enact the First Law – a human needs to be put in danger so that Speedy with help them. Powell runs out onto the surface and tries to get Speedy’s attention, and Speedy saves him. Speedy later returns and gets the selenium from the pool and Powell and Donovan can repair the station.
The third story in the book also features the scientists Powell and Donovan and takes place six months after “Runaround”. Powell and Donovan are trying to discern why certain robots malfunction. They are stationed on Solar Station #5 which is a giant converter, absorbing sunlight and converting it into energy. This energy is transferred to Earth (and the other human colonies in the solar system) via a laser beam. There is a new model of robot that is supposed to manage the space station named QT (nicknamed Cutie).
But Powell and Donovan have problems with Cutie who doesn’t believe what they have told it about Earth, humans, and other robots. Cutie is confused by the notion that it has to run the space station because it is too dangerous a job for humans. The robot goes off to think and returns two days later to discuss the logical answer that it has arrive at.
Cutie reasons that it knows it exists because of Descartes’s first philosophical move: because it thinks. The second thing Cutie reasoned was that it does not understand how a weaker race, the humans, could have built a superior robot race. And lastly, since everyone in the space station is so focused on the energy converter itself, Cutie assumes that this must be God. Cutie refers to the converter as “the Master”. Which worries Powell and Donovan, as the humans are supposed to be Cutie’s master. Cutie begins spreading his new philosophy/religion to the other robots on the station and they stop taking orders from the humans. Meanwhile, an electron storm is on the way that will potentially redirect the energy beam and destroy parts of Earth’s surface.
Donovan becomes so irritated by this turn of events that he spits on the energy converter which angers the robots and causes them to keep the scientists away from the converter. Powell and Donovan are unable to operate the controls for the beam during the storm and worry that the Earth’s surface has been scarred. However, Cutie comes to them to show them the readouts from that day and reveals that he kept the beam in focus and kept it from destroying the Earth’s surface. Cutie tells them that it: “kept all dials at equilibrium in accordance with the will of the Master.” Powell and Donovan decide that Cutie can run the space station even though the robot does not believe in Earth.
Catch that Rabbit
The forth story in the novel is also about the scientists Powell and Donovan. It is another six months later and the scientists are testing out a robot for asteroid mining. The “multiple” robot is made up of different robots put together. Namely, a supervisor named DV-5 (nicknamed Dave) and six separate worker robots who operate as Dave’s fingers.
Dave is not supposed to need human intervention to operate correctly but he has been malfunctioning lately. Dave does not know why he is malfunctioning and it is revealed that he is upset by it. Powell and Donovan run some tests on Dave, starting at basic math and ethics problems and running up to moral problems. Donovan wonders if Dave is planning a robot rebellion but Powell only laughs at this idea. The scientists set up security cameras to watch Dave and record the circumstances when he malfunctions. The cameras reveal that Dave and the other robots are marching or dancing around whenever there’s a cave-in or any other type of emergency.
Powell and Donovan decide to stage a cave-in so they can more closely observe the robots performing this action. However, they miscalculate how to do this and accidentally get caught in the cave-in. The scientists are trapped and, as they are wearing spacesuits, only have a finite amount of oxygen available in their tanks before they suffocate.
Powell manages to shoot at one of the worker robots through a small hole in the cave-in. This snaps Dave out of his strange trance and he saves them. After they are safe, Powell tells Donovan that Dave was malfunctioning when he was made to control all six worker robots at once. This was causing the robot to overload and the workers were dancing or marching because it was Dave’s version of “twiddling his fingers”.
At the end of this story, the narrative returns to Susan Calvin’s interview where she says that she is going to talk about her experience with a robot named Herbie.
In the year 2021, Calvin and the other executives at US Robot have a problem. They discover that one of the RB robots was mis-manufactured and has somehow gained the ability to read minds. A young man named Milton Ashe says that the RB-34 read his mind and that it frightened him. Calvin says that it can be scary to have our minds read since we assume that our personal thoughts are private. The Director of Research, named Lanning and a mathematician named Bogert begin working on the problem.
Calvin talks to the mind-reading robot, nicknamed Herbie. Calvin quickly realizes that Herbie knows her secret, but the secret itself is not revealed yet. Herbie tells her that Milton Ashe loves her but Calvin is skeptical. Later one, Ashe notes to Bogert that Calvin seems to be happier and that she is wearing more makeup. Ashe tells Bogert that he should ask Herbie the answer to why he can read minds, since he is a math genius. Herbie tells Bogert that Lanning is retiring and naming him (Bogert) as his successor. However, Lanning denies this.
Meanwhile, Calvin learns that Ashe is going to marry someone else. Upset, she goes to talk to Herbie at the same time that Lanning and Bogert are trying to talk to him. Herbie does not answer anyone and Calvin realizes that his silence is because his First Law (that he cannot harm humans) is being interpreted as emotional harm and that he has been telling everyone exactly what they want to hear so that he will not emotionally harm them.
Herbie knows why he’s telepathic, but he also knows that Bogert and Lanning want to discover the answer for themselves and this has jammed his programming so that he cannot follow the order to tell them. Calvin tells Herbie that he cannot tell them but he has to tell them and confuses him so much that it drives the robot insane. Bogert and Lanning are horrified that she would do this but Calvin insists that the robot deserved it for being a liar.
After this story, the interviewer realizes that he is not going to get anything more out of Calvin tonight and leaves to return another day.
Little Lost Robot
In the year 2029 Calvin and Bogert travel to the Hyper Base research station in outer space where they are introduced to a Major-General Kallner. Kallner tells them that some of their specially equipped NS-2 robots have gone missing. These robots are special because they do not have the First Law imprinted in their programming. The crew suspect that the robots are hiding amongst others of their kind in a cargo hold. But the NS-2’s in the cargo hold are all identical in appearance and thus the specially equipped models cannot be told apart from the others.
Kallner wants Calvin and Bogert to find the robots. The robots were specially designed to lack the First Law because the scientists on the space station were required to regularly work with dangerous radiation and the robots kept interrupting their work in order to “rescue” them from the radiation. They simply couldn’t let a human operate in such harmful conditions. So the base ordered a fleet of specialized robots and were sent only one. This special robot does not have the First Law imprinting and had to be kept secret from the general public as a result.
Calvin suggests that all of the robots in the cargo hold be destroyed in order to make sure that the problematic robot is killed but the men argue against this. The next day the scientists talk to a physicist working on the station named Gerald Black who was the last person to see Nestor-10, the missing robot. Gerald told the missing robot to “Go lose yourself” after getting frustrated with it while he was working and the robot obeyed this order by keeping himself lost.
To suss out which of the 62 robots in the cargo hold is Nestor-10, Calvin and Bogert begin testing them. The first test is to put a person from the crew in fake danger so that any robot with a First Law implant would try to save them. However, all 63 robots, including Nestor-10 do save the crew member.
In the second test, Calvin adds fake electrified wires in between the robot and the person being saved, so that the First Law (saving humans) has to override the Third Law (keeping yourself safe). However, when this test is run, none of the robots move to save the human. When Calvin interviews the robots after the test, she discovers that all of the robots talked before the test and Nestor-10 convinced them that they couldn’t save the human anyway, so they should stay out of harms way so that they may save another human in the future.
Finally a third test is devised. In the third test, instead of electrified cables, Calvin tells the robots that a gamma ray field will be put between them and the human that they are saving. This test is implemented because the real Nestor-10 has been given some knowledge of physics. However, Calvin actually uses harmless infrared radiation. Calvin herself acts as the endangered human during this test and when it is given, only one robot moves to save her – Nestor-10.
Angered at being found out, Nestor-10 tries to attack Calvin and Gerald Black kills the robot with gamma radiation. After this, Kallner agrees to destroy the rest of the specialized robots.
Shortly after the events of “Little Lost Robot”, the executives as US Robot have another problem. The company’s competitor, Consolidated, Inc. is willing to pay them to use their super computer to run some data on something called a hyperatomic drive, a drive that would take humans through a space warp that would kill them otherwise. Unfortunately the computer broke while trying to run this information which gave the executives as US Robot the impression that Consolidated was specifically trying to break their computer.
They wonder if the data perhaps contained a logical dilemma like the one that Calvin used against Herbie in “Liar!” which would cause the computer to shut down. Unlike other super-computers, the computer at US Robot had a personality and would look for an escape if confronted with a dilemma of this nature in much the same way a human being would.
In fixing the computer, Calvin tries to feed it the data in small pieces so that it can process it slowly. The super computer is nicknamed, “The Brain.” The Brain tells Calvin that it can build a space ship with a hyperatomic drive. Calvin accidentally jokes that human beings don’t mind being dead and not to worry about killing them.
After the spaceship is built, Lanning calls in Powell and Donovan to test it. After entering the ship, Powell and Donovan notice that it does not seem to have an engine or a control panel inside. Even worse, when they try to leave, the door locks and the ship takes them out into space. Calvin demands to know what The Brain is doing and it insists that the scientists are safe. Aboard the ship, Powell and Donovan discover some strange things about the ship, like a one way radio, through which they can hear Earth trying to contact them, but cannot contact back. They also find that the only food on board is baked beans and milk.
Powell and Donovan begin having odd hallucinations that they are in hell. When they wake up, they compare their hallucinations and realize that they both died briefly. Soon, Powell and Donovan are rescued, and Calvin explains what happened to them.
After Calvin told The Brain that humans didn’t mind being dead, the computer realized that it could build the hyperdrive in a way that would kill people for only a short time. However, this is against the First Law, in a way, so as a coping mechanism, The Brain made jokes on the spaceship in the form of the food and no controls or engine. US Robots decides to play this trick on the people at Consolidated.
Back at the interview, Calvin says that the hyperdrive wasn’t as important as the fact that the invention of it made different nations work together and that they had help from super computing machines. Then Calvin begins talking about a man named Stephen Byerley who ran for Mayor in 2032. The narrative never establishes in which town Byerley was running for mayor.
Francis Quinn is the head of Byerley’s campaign opposition. Quinn decides that he is going to spread rumors that Byerley is a robot to keep him from winning the election. Quinn needs to make things up about Byerley’s past because the man has led a very clean life, with only one car accident as a type of incident in his past. Quinn goes to US Robots and talks to Lanning for evidence that Byerley is a robot. Quinn tells Lanning that Byerley being outed as a robot could be damaging for US Robots as people are still afraid of robots and they aren’t allowed on Earth.
Lanning and Calvin call Byerley who tells them that he is not going to try to disprove Quinn’s rumors but that he is going to turn the accusation against him. Byerley talks to a crippled man who is named John about a plan but does not reveal what the plan is to the reader.
Back at US Robots, Calvin says that there are two different tests to see if Byerley is a robot. They can either dissect him or they can test him to see if he is able to break one of the three laws. Unfortunately, there is a chance that the second option will not work, as if Byerley, for instance, put himself in harms way to save a human life he may just be a good man. Calvin says that the Three Laws of Robotics, “are the essential guiding principals of a good many of the word’s ethical systems”.
Lanning admits to Quinn that it is possible to make a robot with organic human skin and Quinn takes this as the last straw to publicly accuse Byerley of not being human. As the media goes into a frenzy, Quinn tries to get evidence, but failing this, calls Byerley and tells him that he thinks that John, the crippled man that Byerley lives with is the real Stephen Byerley and that after the car accident, he built this Byerley as a replacement for himself.
Later, during a speech, the listening crowd heckles Byerley, and one audience member dares the man to hit him to prove that he’s not a robot. Byerley does hit him, and Calvin tells the reporters that this is breaking the First Law and proves that Byerley isn’t a robot.
After this, Byerley wins the election. He confesses to Calvin that he intended to create a situation where he would have to prove that he was human so that he could easily win after he did so. Calvin realizes that the man that Byerley hit may also have been a robot, as John could have made another one very easily, and this would not counteract the First Law. However, Calvin likes the idea of a robot mayor because of the Laws of Robotics, and so, does nothing with this information.
In the interview, Calvin says that Byerley was a good mayor and went on to be the first World Coordinator when the Machines began helping the run the Earth. This reminds her of a story that happened during Byerley’s second term as World Coordinator in 2052.
The Evitable Conflict
In 2052, Byerley talks to Calvin in his personal study in New York about certain economic problems that the Earth is having. Byerley wonders if the Machines are about to start a war against the humans. Byerley lays out a long theory involving different conflicts in humanity’s past that seemed inevitable to us now but were swept aside by other conflicts eventually.
There is a new head of US Robots. The new head, Vincent, tells Byerley that since the new robots were built by the old robots, there is no way to run a human test on them anymore. However, the new machines still abide by the Three Laws.
Byerley asks Calvin if she has heard about the “Society for Humanity” a new organization that is against robots. He tells her that he went to the four corners of the world to talk to the heads of different Robotics companies about their production and the economic problems they have been experiencing and the men all told him that they weren’t worried and that the problems were miniscule. However, discovering ties to the Society for Humanity leads Byerley to think that they are behind it all. He thinks that he should outlaw the society and make everyone involved sign oaths to be loyal to humans. Calvin reminds him of the First Law – that the Machines cannot harm a human – but notes that because the Machines are working for the entirety of humanity, that means that they cannot harm humanity at large and this could mean that they are causing these economic disturbances in order to help us in some way.
She wonders if it is to knock the members of the Society for Humanity out of the powerful positions they enjoy. Byerley worries that humanity has lost control over it’s destiny, but Calvin tells him that we never had any and wonders if the machines may know better anyway. This story ends when the fire in Byerley’s study goes out.
Back in the interview, Calvin makes one last statement: “I saw it from the beginning when the poor robots couldn’t speak to the end, when they stand between mankind and destruction. I will see no more. My life is over. You will see what comes next”.
The interview tells the reader that Susan Calvin dies last month at the age of 82 in the year 2064.
Susan Calvin – a robot psychologist at US Robots and Mechanical Men. Calvin is the common thread throughout all of the stories. Though she does not appear in every story, she links them together by being the story-teller who is talking to an interviewer at some time in the future. Calvin is described as being very cold and unemotional. Indeed, Asimov himself said that she was more like a robot than some of the actual robots in the novel.
Despite this, Calvin is a no-nonsense character, who is not afraid to stand up for herself to her superiors in Us Robots and the government. Calvin’s character was initially invented for the story “Liar!” and later retroactively added to the earlier stories when the short stories were reworked into a novel.
As a character, Calvin seems to appreciate robots more than she appreciates humans and she often praises them as being more moral and, therefore, better at protecting humanity and running the Earth. At the end of the novel, Calvin accepts the Machine’s Co-Operation of Earth more quickly than anyone and seems to believe that humans are better off with machines in charge.
Gregory Powell and Michael Donovan – the two scientists who are regularly featured as tech support-style workmen in the novel. Powell and Donovan have been working together for years by the start of the novel and are never separated in the narrative. They almost function as one character together. However, their personalities are almost opposite. Powell is shown to be the more calm, reasonable one while Donovan is more quick to jump to anger and defense. These differences are illustrated several times throughout the novel. They are on display in “Reason” when Powell tries to reason with Cutie while Donovan can only threaten the robot and later spit on the Master, the robot’s version of God.
Both Powell and Donovan seem to work well together and seem to be genuine friends. They often playfully joke with each other, but this does not stop them from getting the job done and using the same clever scientific processes as Calvin.
Stephen Byerley – the future mayor of earth and later World Coordinator with the Machines. Byerley is said to be either a robot or just a very good, kind man as he does not seem to be able to counteract the first order of Robotics: a robot must never harm humans. Because of this, Byerley is an excellent, kind mayor and leader.
Byerley is also said to have an impeccable record except for a car accident that took him several months to recover from when he was a young man. It is heavily implied that this accident crippled the real Stephen Byerley who built a robot to pose as him and that this is the Stephen Byerley who is running for mayor. By the end of the novel, Byerley is the World Coordinator with the Machines and takes it upon himself to look into several economic crises that have cropped up around the world to find out if it is the robots doing. This fact seems to argue against Byerley being a robot himself, although it is not revealed what he does with the information that he collects at the end of the novel.
Isaac Asimov Biography
Isaac Asimov was born some time around January 2nd 1920 in Petrovichi, Russia. His exact date of birth is unknown but he was born with the name Isaak Ozimov which he later changed. When he was three years old, Asimov’s family moved to the United States. His parents owned a succession of candy shops in which the members of his family worked. It was while spending time at these candy stores that Asimov began reading the newspapers and magazines which he later credited as the beginning of his lifelong love of reading.
In 1928, Asimov became a naturalized citizen of the United States. At the age of 11, inspired by the pulp magazines that he loved, Asimov began writing stories of his own. By the age of 19, he was selling science fiction stories of his devising to the same magazines.
Asimov began attending Seth Low Junior College at the age of 15 where he majored in chemistry. He received a Bachelor’s degree in 1939 and later completed a Masters and a Ph.D. In 1942, Asimov married his first wife, Gertrude Blugerman and the couple had two children, David in 1951 and Robyn Joan in 1955. They later separated in 1970.
During the 1940’s, Asimov continued to publish many short stories in pulp science fiction magazines which were later collected into full length novels. These novels include “The Robot Series” which was published between 1954 and 1985, ‘The Foundation Trilogy’ which was published between 1951 and 1953 and the “Norby Chronicles” published between 1983 and 1991 among countless others. Indeed, Asimov’s entire body of work is so large that it is hard to define just how many books he wrote and technically the number could be in the hundreds.
During World War II, he worked as a civilian at in a Naval Air Experimental Station in Philadelphia. In 1945 he was drafted into the US Army and served for nine months before being honorably discharged.
After the war, Asimov went to work at the Boston University School of Medicine where he taught chemistry. For many years, Asimov worked as a full-time writer, publishing short stories and collecting them into novels.
In the year 1973, after his divorce from his first wife was completed, he quickly remarried Janet O. Jeppson whom he was married to until his death.
Asimov began suffering health issues in 1977 and later died in New York City on April, 6th, 1992 at the age of 72. Years after his death, it was revealed that his heart complications were due to an infection of HIV which he had received during a blood transfusion during his bypass surgery in 1983. This information was reveled by his family to bring more awareness of the disease.