I, Robot

Why did I read this book?

I don’t read scientific fiction novels and don’t watch the likes of interstellar / space travel / UFO movies and more such Nolan creations which usually the engineering nerds go gaga about. This book was recommended by a friend  – one of those nerds – primarily for the innate humour and futuristic depiction of the world (or maybe because he was doped). More importantly, it introduced me to a world with the three laws of Robotics as fundamental to existence as Newtonian mechanics today :  

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 orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

To me, someone oblivious to the world of science fiction, robotic laws seemed like a strange intriguing affair. I discovered later that the book was also a 2004 feature film starring Will Smith, though it wasn’t a Box Office success – IMDB 7.1 (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rL6RRIOZyCM)

(Just a fair warning, there are elements of interstellar travel, habitation of in alternate galaxies, references to scientific theorems (Einstein, thermodynamics etc), which could translate into a heavy read if you’re not a science buff. )

The Plot Summary

I will try to provide some basic context without revealing plot spoilers : The book depicts a futuristic world where positronic robots are mainstream creatures integrated into daily human operations and sectors – mining, nursing, manufacturing etc The protagonist of the book – A Senior Robopsychologist – one of the best in the US Robotics’ Office – is being interviewed by a journalist for a cover story of a leading magazine. (The novel is a collection of her narratives). During the course of her interview (which stretches over the book), she recounts her life experiences: especially those outlier stories and exception cases she dealt with – Like robots going bad, situations conflicting the fundamental laws, mind-reading robots, of robot politicians aspiring robo-dominance, and robots who secretly run the world pretending to be humans! 

Sounds like some crazy alternate universe? Well, yes. Asimov will keep amusing you till the very end!

What are my views on the book?

Time travel transports you to a different world. And I don’t mean different like in the chapters of magical realism or biographies or surreal kingdoms, but different because they represent a different era – either futuristic or prehistoric. Asimov pulls a similar move on you: depicting a futuristic world with positronic robots and yet integrated into our lives in a realistic fashion, an audacious extension of our current world in 2017. They’re one amongst us: playing with our kids, controlling machines in steel factories, digging in mars etc. All of this set in a context not very far from today –  2072 – where the humans grappled with the same global issues : individual political ambitions, world domination by robots, capitalists exploiting natural resources etc. The best part is that there is remarkable precision with the lifestyle predicted almost a centenary later (the book was published in 1962) – you could identify yourself with any of the families portrayed and relate to their tea-time conversations. The integration of robots in their life is remarkable – A typical urban middle class mother worries about her daughter’s affinity to her robo-buddy and her shunning away any human friends of her age, think-tanks worldwide debating if robots can be used for military warfare as weapons of mass destruction, you get the drift right?

Aside from the excellent characterization, Asimov keeps you hilariously engaged with Dr. Susan’s chronicles – robots refusing to believe that they are creations of sub-par species like human beings and their need to create a Technology “Cult”, mind-reading robots toying with human emotions and their thought-crimes (Yes, there is a reference to Orwell), manufacturing illegal robots who aren’t embedded with the first law (Defying laws is sacrilege). My personal favourite was : A congressman who is actually a robot, a human facsimile, and who braved an investigation on him where he was forced to eat food. Then there is one, Cutie, with philosophical metaphysical undertones and questioning the higher purpose of existence :

“I have spent these last two days in concentrated introspection” said Cutie, “and the results have been most interesting. I began at one sure assumption I felt permitted to make. I, myself, exist, because I think-“

And then he turned religious : “There is no Master but the Master and QT-1 is his prophet.”

But what is captured even more accurately are the pressing questions facing humanity on the cusp of a robotic revolution : Where is the future of Robots headed? By creating more intelligent bots everyday, are we rendering human beings obsolete? Will AI progress to the extent that brain or more pressingly human emotions will be replicable? In today’s world, with increasing dependence on technology, are we being party to the destruction of our own race? This book could easily be moulded into an episode from TV Series Black Mirror. The book spells a lesson in psychology and an equally compelling narrative in the future of the world.

As Fredrick Pohl put it: “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.”

Bottomline: Need an outer-worldly experience to rattle you up?! Read this one! 

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NameI, Robot

AuthorIsaac Asimov (Published in 1962)

Genre: Science Fiction

Recognition: Part of The Foundation Universe. The author is among the best sci-fi writers.  

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