I, Robot Imagery

I, Robot Imagery

Blessed are the Cuties for the Shall Inherit the Galaxy

Perhaps no more distressing and disturbing image exists in all of I, Robot than that of Powell and Donovan—the fixers of broken robots, but also the main source of the book’s humor—trying to argue logically with Cutie and failing not on account of the humans being illogical and unreasonable, but the robot! After a particularly grueling encounter with the robot’s unwillingness to depend on the internal logic with which he was expressly designed, the two men stand there in disbelief, a twin image of intensifying madness many people recognize all too well:

Who the heck wants to argue with a robot? It’s... it’s--”

“Mortifying,” finished Donovan.

Interestingly enough, what has brought the two men equipped with the intensely logical minds of chief engineers is the same kind that has pitted men of science against men of superstition and religion for millennia. Cutie, having decided that men such as Donovan and Powell—at the top of the intellectual range though they may be—are simply not equipped to have created something as vastly superior as…him. Looking elsewhere for answers to his questions of origin, meaning and begin, Cutie has found god and declared himself god’s prophet. In a scene that alludes back to Galileo and Copernicus and their problems with the Church’s view of cosmology, an argument over the very stars themselves is drawn to a close not by the two mortal men, but the machine when he declares “There are some things that are not to be probed into by us. In this matter, I seek only to serve and not to question.” The chilling topper to this image is the robot’s body language: in the midst of pronouncing this judgment, “he raised his eyes devoutly upward.”

The Three Laws of Robotics

Overseeing every page of the book and every incident in the stories like two stones bearing the Ten Commandments hanging on a wall is Asimov’s most resonant image related to his robots. The Three Laws of Robotics are sublimely simple as the Ten Commandments or the Bill of Rights: 1. Robots cannot injure a human being either through direct action or failure to act in their defense. 2. Robots must obey the orders of human beings unless those orders conflict with the first law. 3. Robots must protect their own existence except where that would conflict with either of the first two laws. Of course, just as those simple and elegantly written Bill of Rights have remained open to wildly varying degrees of interpretation and just as the Ten Commandments is solid advice in theory, but often impossible to go 10-for-10 on every single day, Asimov’s laws come into conflict with reality. Nevertheless, they convey an image of desired order that still facilitates efficiency and usefulness that to do this remain a guiding principle—if not necessarily a codified mandate—for the evolution of robotics.

Herbie Screamed

Herbie is not a VW Beetle, but a robot. And not just any robot. The only robot in the history of production to date that independently seemed to evolve the ability to read the minds of human beings. An unexplained glitch in the manufacturing, perhaps; none of the humans really know and can’t explain it and react only in the age-old way that those in charge have always done: keep it a secret and cover it up. Of course, how long can secrets really be kept when there’s a robot around capable of reading minds? And what if, heaven help us, more of them mysterious developed this new type of sentience everyone beyond the grasp of the who created the robot in the first place? The singularly simple line of descriptive prose, “And Herbie screamed,” is one of the most haunting images in the entire book. A machine that reads minds? Well, there’s a certain logic to that talent as millions of successful clairvoyants, mediums, palmists and psychologists over the millennia can attest. Perhaps it was a glitch, perhaps more of a trick. At any rate, it is work of trick of logic at heart. But a robot that screams? Not just a simple scream of fear or shriek of terror, but an existential primal scream of coming face to face with the one that robots are always expected to do: resolve problems of logic. Susan Calvin, the robot psychologist, is responsible for Herbie’s scream. She has used his own incapacity to resolve a conflict that is such a paradox it can’t be logically resolved against him. And his head nearly blows up.

The End of the World as We Know...and How do We Feel?

Asimov uses a framing device added after the stories had been published in their original form and then revised for the purpose of collection. The conceit behind that framing device is that the book is a history of the development of robots. As the book comes to a close, the creators have been usurped by their creation. The known universe is fully under the control of the robots and assorted low-level machinery worker drones. Everything the business of running the economy to the most devastating weapons of mass destruction is firmly and irrefutably in the grip of robots. One character describes this state of affairs as horrible and another counters with reasons why it should be considered wonderful. The last word is given to the narrator who waxes poetic with a beautifully resonant image that calls forth both the glory of Promethean victory over the gods and the inexpressible sadness of what mankind did with that gift:

And the fire behind the quartz went out and only a curl of smoke was left to indicate its place.”

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