I, Robot, by Isaac Asimov
I, Robot is a loosely connected set of stories about robot sentience and the response of humanity to this phenomenon, most of them framed around a conversation between a young reporter and an elderly Dr. Susan Calvin about her career with robots. Most of the stories deal with robots that have gone haywire and human beings have to use intuition to find out why, given the superiority of the robots in mere computational and mathematical matters. Some of the characters, like Dr. Calvin and cranky robot troubleshooters Powell and Donovan, appear in many stories (Powell and Donovan in particular appear like comic relief).
As a whole, these stories are well-written and humorous, and are also thought-provoking concerning the relationship of intelligence and sentience. It is clear that Asimov’s worldview presents some difficulties, though. For one, it is obvious that Asimov’s naturalistic bias (as an evolutionist) led him to greatly underestimate the complexity of intelligence and overestimate the capacity of mankind to replicate it. A greater appreciation for human thought and achievement would have led him to be more modest and less sanguine about the possibility of artificial intelligence, as Asimov’s estimates for robot development were greatly overestimated.
Asimov’s worldview presents other problems as well. Asimov’s glorification of robots, and people (like Dr. Calvin) who are fairly robotic themselves seems to spring from an overinflated opinion in the rational capacity of the author and those like him. Whether this is the cause or result of a certain contempt for humanity is difficult to determine. In the absence of a belief in a personal, ethical God, and in the absence of any faith of moral and ethical development in the great mass of humanity (apart from rather sterile and lifeless intellectual elites like himself who appeared to lack inclinations for family and marriage), Asimov imagined the fate of humanity resting on our own extremely rational creations, which would preserve us simply because of their own slavish obedience to the Three Laws of Robotics, which alone made it safe for robot intelligence to exist in the first place.
This work, as massively influential as it was, is only appealing to someone with a particular political worldview. It should be noted that I do not share this worldview, and therefore while I recognize the skill of the work, and the humor of parts of it, the work as a whole leaves me rather cold and there are parts of the work that are quite frankly offensive. Among the most offensive aspects of the author are his portrayal of conservatives, which is lacking in sympathy as well as accurate understanding. The author has a shallow view of human psychology, little appreciation of art and beauty, and virtually no understanding of history or the value of appreciating and preserving the best of the past as part of achieving a better future. These blind spots, which spring from Asimov’s faulty worldview, make his work a bit sterile and lacking in a certain sense of humanity.
As far as the stories themselves go, they include a robot politician who is able to pretend to be human enough to win elections, robots whose wayward behavior can be somewhat controlled or at least handled because of the strength of the prohibition of doing harm to human beings, including a robot driven into insanity because his mind reading abilities lead him to be dishonest, and another robot tripped up by his intellectual arrogance. These stories are excellent ones, and one of them, “Little Lost Robot,” became part of the inspiration for the Will Smith movie that is very loosely based on this story, and a great deal more human. Fortunately, the book is a quick read, and the stories can be taken either individually or as part of a coherent whole. There are plenty of worse ways of spending a few hours.