Review of “I, Robot” by Isaac Asimov
This book was written in the 1940s through the 1950s, and after more than half a century, it is still one the best science fictions you could find around, and has spawned a whole new genre of literature on highly capable robots.
The book consisted of a series of short stories, told through the reminiscences of Dr. Susan Calvin, a robopsychologist (an expert in robot psychology), strung together to chronicle the development and advancement of robots over several decades, from its origins as family pet to its ultimate role as the world planner and ruler.
The book worms of this genre are certainly no stranger to the Three Laws of Robotics, even if you have never read I, Robot. Since its publication, it had become a kind of gospel that governs the robotic constituency. In the literary space, that is, as the current most advanced robot in our physical space could barely analyze a sentence in natural language, yet. It is, in a way, a wishful thinking of the author that, regardless of how capable and advanced a robot could be, it is still supposed to a be a tool for the aspiration and fulfillment of humanity. Isn’t that a dream of all humanists, as Isaac Asimov is one himself?
If we put this book in its historical context, we can see that Asimov had a bigger, long-cherished wish, which extended to the whole humanity.
When we looked at the time prior to, and around the book publication, the world had gone through industrialization, World War I had exposed the ugly side of human war faring, many peoples were still struggling to rid off the colonization shackles, a period of economic expansion when speculation and opportunism went rampant, followed by one of the worst economic downturn and protectionism which gave birth to some of the worst ideologies, and a Second World War where we tried to kill and bomb each other to the stone age, while amassing enough weaponry to destroy completely the planet we called home. The war was ended in the wake of the atomic blast, life started to get its normalcy, but nuclear winter also started to loom in the horizon. Just after one of the cruelest period in human history, we didn’t seem to have learned the lesson either.
As a humanist intellectual of the time, how could you not feel the distress inside, and how could you not long for durable peace, better resource allocation and wealth distribution in a more equitable society? As a scientist, you wish you could create a framework, build a platform, and solve the problems without prejudice.
With scientific advancement and technological breakthrough, robot would become more capable, and it is just a matter of time that it outwits its own creator, and eventually take over. As a tool, that means, robots will be able to handle human affairs more efficiently than human beings can. And as a matter of fact, we not only did not handle own own affairs properly, we have, in fact, made a big mess. As Carl Sagan has put it better, if aliens were watching our planet, they probably would have concluded that there are no intelligent species on this planet. Asimov was a first-hand witness of the tumultuous 20th century. With the objective eyes of a scientist, he probably saw and understood the matter better than most people.
Therefore, for the greater good of humanity, why shouldn’t we take a different approach?
If a robot can be created capable of being a civil executive, I think he’d make the best one possible. By the Laws of Robotics, he’d be incapable of harming humans, incapable of tyranny, of corruption, of stupidity, of prejudice.
By a stroke of his pen, didn’t Asimov just describe the wishful thinking of the general populace about their rulers and politicians? Don’t we all wish that our politicians only think for the good of humanity, and are incapable of tyranny, of corruption, of stupidity, of prejudice? Haven’t we dreamed of this, for thousands of years already? From Aristotle’s philosopher ruler to Confucius’ sage king to the checks and balance of modern political systems, we had the same dream, albeit expressed in different terms over time.
And I believe that Asimov was trying to describe his dream through the mouth of the protagonist.
Since we can’t handle our own affairs, why not let the robot do it? And for the author, human beings don’t seem to be able to avoid these corruptible characteristics. And we will never learn the lessons from history either. Two candidates for the mayorship were behaving very differently. A human candidate, a despicable politician who campaigned, not on a constructive electoral platform, but on personal assault on his opponent, and who could care less about his constituents’ rights and privacy. Doesn’t this sound like a lot of politicians in our time too? The other candidate was a robot, who was cool, and very likable, and even had something to offer.
As a humanist, Asimov believed in the human values and concerns. He was probably still optimistic that we could clean our own mess, but we might have to take a different route.
At the end, not only did we have robot politician, the whole economy was also centrally planned, coordinated, and closely monitored by robots, for the good of humanity, of course. Wild speculations of unregulated capitalism were, thus, avoided. Durable peace was achieved. I was surprised, if anything, that Isaac Asimov himself didn’t fall prey to the McCarthy witch hunt, for promoting a system that borrowed ideas from Communism.
We, readers from the 21st century, might find the protagonist, Susan Calvin, to be a perfectly normal scientist, working in a leading edge domain. However, try to put yourself in the shoes of a person living in the 1940s and 1950s, an epoch before the social and feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, you would probably find her to be a cold scientist, straight as an arrow, who was more interested in her career than other womanly things. You probably would have asked what was she doing, working in a tough environment among men. Certainly, even though women were part of the working force since the dawn of time, societal norms had a certain expectation on the role of women, namely, in raising a family, in being the other half of a love life and to be cuddled.
Therefore, what made it the more inspiring is the fact that Asimov was way ahead of his time, not just in his vision of scientific endeavor, but also in societal progress towards a more equitable world where every human being has a role to play, and women are as capable as men, not just procreation tools. No matter your gender or background, everyone has a chance in the pursuit of his or her happiness. And love is, though a part of, but certainly not the only road to happiness.
Notwithstanding, Asimov had also put depth into the characters. Calvin was not a single faceted character with platitude, but she was also a lively person with all human emotions, who reared up in a temper in front of a frustrating situation, who longed for love, and who was saddened to be crossed in love. And that made her all the more humane, and lovable.
In a way, Susan Calvin was probably a female intimate friend that Asimov dreamed of, but never had in life? And who couldn’t sympathize with him, for dreaming of an intimate friend of the opposite sex, with whom one could converse on the same level of intellect?
As a contemporary reader, you have to admire Asimov’s vision and perspicacity of the development of computing technologies and society. The book was written in an era when modern computer, as we know it now, was still in its infancy. It would be unfair to expect him to have predicted the technological advancement. However, I was really amazed to see that his invented, fictional technology called positronic brain resemble, to a very accurate degree, the software-based electronic brain of the current computing systems. The frustration of the technicians in debugging, troubleshooting and testing robots with a positronic brain has put knowingly smiles on the face of the programmer in me. Isn’t this a good description of the contemporary software development process? As any programmer who had worked on complex systems would have done, I nodded, and at times, giggled at the passage, which in turn, made heads turn in the coffee shop.
This is a science fiction with an agenda, which explored human conditions, and the impact of scientific advance upon human beings. It is even more interesting if we could put it in its historical context.