'I, Robot' - Book Review

I, Robot
by Isaac Asimov

A collection of Asimov's short stories about robots, all of which relate to his "Three Laws of Robotics." I probably read this first 35 or 40 years ago(!).

  • First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  • Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  • Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

I recently (within the last year) saw a rebuttal of the Three Laws in reference to A.I., although it was more of an argument along the lines of "they don't have enough subtlety." The fact that someone feels it necessary to argue against these laws, which Asimov drew up more than 70 years ago (I suspect they significantly predate any use of the term "Artificial Intelligence") proves their amazing longevity and influence. I think the argument had to do with things like the notorious Trolley Problem (an ethics thought experiment recently brought vividly and hysterically to life by an episode in the second season of "The Good Place"). With that in mind, I noted that in both the stories "Evidence" and "The Evitable Conflict," Susan Calvin (Asimov's robot psychologist) addresses that exact issue (kill one to save several) and claimed that a robot would be able to make that decision. This goes somewhat contrary to some of his other stories, where the necessity of harming a person to save them essentially turns robots into bricks.

Asimov was a very intelligent man, and his stories are for the most part interesting thought experiments. I did kind of feel his dedication to his own three laws, and the belief they couldn't be broken, was perhaps overly optimistic. Unfortunately his characters are often caricatures, and his prose is wooden and absurd. The ideas were interesting enough that I made it through the book, but I was kind of gobsmacked by how bad the writing was. It's a hugely influential book (both in SF and AI) and is worth a read for that - but brace yourself for 1940s SF prose ...