I first read this collection of short stories in 1969: I was fascinated by what then seemed the brave new world of space exploration, and by the role that robots might play.
The Three Laws of Robotics made perfect sense to my teenaged self:
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 by a human being unless it conflicts with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection won’t conflict with the First or Second Law.
I think what attracted me to these short stories then was the possibility of intelligent robots, undertaking work that would be too dangerous for humans.
Rereading the stories now, almost fifty years later, I focussed more on ethical issues. On how humans tried to make the robots more like them, even when that was dangerous and involved modifications to the Laws of Robotics.
The short stories in this book were amongst the first that Isaac Asimov published. They are brought together chronologically as an interviewer researches the life of Dr Susan Calvin, chief robopsychologist at U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc., the major manufacturer of robots. Dr Calvin reminisces about her life’s work, which has mainly been concerned with the aberrant behaviour of robots and the use of robopsychology to identify what is happening in the robot’s positronic brain.
As a framing device, this technique works very well as it enables the stories to be presented as a series of sequential developments. From robots that cannot speak, to robots that think. The conflicts that arise where humans have not thought through the consequences of the instructions they give the robots.
Yes, some of the stories are dated (we may not have made quite as much progress quite as quickly as Asimov thought when he wrote these stories during the 1940s). But the issues he raised are still relevant.
I wonder what the future holds.
As Dr Calvin says, at the end of the book:
‘I saw it from the beginning, when the poor robots couldn’t speak, to the end, when they stand between mankind and destruction.’