English 192
Science Fiction
Spring 2002
Professor William Warner

Course Overview



Study Materials

Course Policies

Asimov: I, Robot

From where did the concept of the robot come?


Four different meanings for the robot within s/f narrative:

  • the robot is a metaphor for the human enslaved by mechanization [1]
  • the robot is a rival to the human [2]
  • the story of robots run amok [3].
  • robot as friend, partner, and a complex agent with rights [4]: e.g. "Robbie"

Intellectual Contexts

  • Alan Turing: cracking the Enigma code; the Turing Game
  • Norbert Weiner: the cybernetic turn: from machines to information
  • the computer intelligence and human intelligence
  • the robot, Elektric and his dog, Sparky, are featured at the 1929 New York World's Fair (look how big this robot is!)

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992)

  • Asimov is born in Russia, arrives in Brooklyn at age 3, and has unlimited access to s/f because his father owns a candy store
  • writes all but one of the I, Robot stories for John Campell, the editor of Astounding Stories
  • make the scientific strata of his fiction up to date and rigorous
  • balances essential optimism about the advance of modern science against a pessimism about the directions of social life
The basic elements of the I, Robot stories
  • anomalous robot behavior: a problem to solve
  • understand things from teh robot's point of view
  • humans and robots: an essential social relationship
  • novem: "positronic brain" and 3 laws

The Three Laws of Robotics (first developed for "Liar")

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 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.

  • recursive and embedded
  • institutes operational hiearchy
  • in application, how does one balance these laws?
"Roundabout" (1942) and the endless loop
"Reason" (1941) robot independence, and the question of superiority
"Liar" (1941): robot kindness and human anger

I, Robot: questions for discussion in section and next lecture

"Robbie" (1940): what does Gloria's response to Robbie suggest about robots?

"Runaround" (1942): what does Speedy getting caught between the conflicting imperatives (obeying and self-preservation) suggest about the tension between a software programming ideal and real world implementation?

"Reason" (1941) : what does this story, and its display of Cutie's reasoning powers, suggest about reason as humans practice it?

"Catch That Rabbit" (1944): what does this story suggest about the dangers implicit in giving one agent (here Dave) absolute power over his subordinates?

"Liar!"(1941): what are the unintended consequences of a robot like Herbie gaining the power to read human minds? what sort of ethical crisis does this produce between the robot and the humans? what do you think of Susan Calvin's solution?

"Little Lost Robot" (1947): Why is the modification of rule 1 a dangerous business? how does Nestor 10 surprise his human pursuers? What does Calvin's successful tricking of Nestor 10 suggest about the essential conflict between humans and robots?

"Escape!" (1945): What gives "the Brain" in this story its distinct power? What is the point of the near-death experience? How has "the Brain" used its power on Powell and Donovan? on Calvin? on Itself?

"Evidence" (1946): Why does Calvin 'side' with Byerley in his conflict with Quinn? How does this story resituate our understanding of the 3 laws?

"The Evitable Conflict" (1950): What is the "conflict" and why is it "inevitable"? Are you convinced by the suggestion that robots might manage human conflict better than humans?

This page was composed by Professor William Warner. Last changed 4/2/02. This course is part of the Transcriptions Project of the Department of English at UC /Santa Barbara.