The Three Laws of Robotics:
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.
With these three simple directives, Isaac Asimov changed our perception of robots forever when he formulated the laws governing their behavior. In I, Robot, Asimov chronicles the development of the robot through a series of interlinked stories: from its primitive origins in the present to its ultimate perfection in the not-so-distant future—a future in which humanity itself may be rendered obsolete.
Here are stories of robots gone mad, of mind-reading robots and robots with a sense of humor, of robot politicians and robots who secretly run the world—all told with the dramatic blend of science fact and science fiction that has become Asimov’s trademark.
In some respects, I, Robot is what I usually imagine when thinking of 1940s and ’50s sci-fi—the characters are a bit flat and the “science” lacks much explanatory detail—but Asimov sets himself apart from much of the era’s “science fantasy” by focusing on the logical puzzles that result from his now famous Laws of Robotics. In a way, this collection of loosely connected short stories provides a good look at the type of thinking necessary in computer programming, where conflicting if-then statements can spell disaster. An easy and straightforward read, this collection published in 1950 is a great starting place for the earlier years of science fiction.
Discussion questions below the cut!
Discussion Questions: PDF | Word Document
Reading Quiz: PDF of Quiz | PDF of Quiz Answers | Word Document
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Asimov created the Three Laws of Robotics after reading other robot-centered sci-fi stories of the 1930s and ’40s; these stories were usually about robots malfunctioning and then destroying their human creators. Consider the many different scenarios Asimov presents over the course of I, Robot. Do you feel that the Three Laws of Robotics are an effective defense against robots harming and/or conquering humanity? Or do you think it would still be possible for robots to destroy humanity, despite the Three Laws? Explain your answer.
When she describes the invention of robots during the book’s introduction, Dr. Susan Calvin remarks, “Mankind is no longer alone.”
- Do you think Dr. Calvin’s comment is accurate within the imagined future world of Asimov’s novel?
- How about within our own present-day world with its many AI helpers, such as Siri and Alexa?
At one point, Dr. Susan Calvin suggests that a human obeying the Three Laws of Robotics “may simply be a very good man.” Do you agree that the Three Laws of Robotics could also work as an ethical code for human behavior? Why or why not?
Consider the First Law of Robotics: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- How do you yourself define the word “harm” in this First Law?
- What are other ways someone could define the word “harm”?
- Do you think clearer, more specific language could have prevented some of the robots’ dilemmas in Asimov’s novel? In your answer, consider how words can have multiple meanings or change their meaning over time.
In this vision of the future written in 1950, there exist only male-coded robots with he/him pronouns. In our present-day reality, however, most of the robots who talk to us have voices that are coded as female (Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant, GPS systems, and more).
- Why do you think Asimov might have imagined an all-male robot future?
- Why do you think our real world has so far created a mostly female one?
- Think about what types of tasks and what kinds of behavior our society thinks of as “feminine” as opposed to “masculine.” Then think about what kind of work robots do in our society, as well as how we expect these robots to behave. How do you think our gender stereotypes affect the way we gender our machines?
Consider Dr. Susan Calvin and how Asimov portrays her in the novel.
- Do you think that Dr. Calvin’s character is interesting and unique or do you think she’s a female stereotype? Explain your answer. Be sure to consider the story “Liar!” in your response.
- In general, what do you think makes a female character stereotypical? On the other hand, what do you think makes a male character stereotypical?
- What kinds of characters do you think most often become stereotypes? Why do you think that is? Feel free to support your answer with examples from other books, movies, and TV shows.
Consider the story “Robbie,” in which the child Gloria becomes so attached to her nursemaid robot.
- Why do you think Gloria’s mother was unable to accept Robbie as a nursemaid for her child? How would you feel if you were in her position?
- Consider the information that Asimov gives you about Robbie’s behavior through the story’s narration. Are there certain details that might make you more sympathetic to Robbie, seeing him as a person as opposed to a mere machine?
- How did you feel about the story’s abrupt ending, in which Dr. Calvin reveals that Robbie and Gloria separate again seven years later?
In I, Robot, the Frankenstein complex means a fear of robots, especially “mechanical men” that resemble humans.
- Do you think the Frankenstein complex exists in our present-day world?
- What kind of fears have you yourself experienced when it comes to technology? What kind of fears have you seen other people have?
The language used by humans and robots in I, Robot often uncomfortably echoes slavery’s vocabulary of master and slave, owner and property.
- Which of the robots in this novel felt to you like machines and which felt like people? Explain your answer.
- Do you think a robot can ever be considered “enslaved”? Or is it always just a machine to be used and thrown away?
In 1985, the Washington Post criticized Asimov’s limited character portrayals in his writing, stating, “… Asimov’s humans were stripped-down masculine portraits of Americans from 1940…”
- Consider the characters in I, Robot as far as their race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. What type of person is represented in this book?
- Do you agree with the Washington Post’s criticism? Why or why not?
Asimov’s novel was titled I, Robot by his publisher over his objections. Asimov wanted to title his book Mind and Iron. Which title do you think is a better representation of Asimov’s novel? Explain your answer. Can you think of a title that would be even better?
A number of people have criticized Asimov’s writing style for its lack of literary style. For instance, when writing about I, Robot, sci-fi scholar James Gunn said: “… they are not stories in which character plays a significant part. Virtually all plot develops in conversation with little if any action. Nor is there a great deal of local color or description of any kind. The dialogue is, at best, functional and the style is, at best, transparent.” Asimov, however, replied to these criticisms by saying, “I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing—to be ‘clear.’ I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally, or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize.”
- What do you see as the possible advantages when it comes to Asimov’s dedication to clear writing?
- What do you see as the possible disadvantages when it comes to Asimov’s lack of interest in literary artistry?
- Consider your own response as a reader to I, Robot. Did you enjoy Asimov’s clarity when it came to description and sci-fi concepts? Or would you have preferred more artistry and ambiguity in his language and storytelling style?
I, Robot is a compilation of several short stories written by Asimov from 1940 to 1950. The novel contains multiple stories in which robots are ultimately harmless, kept under the continued control of humans despite the occasional hiccup. However, the end of the book could be described as a rise of the robots, featuring a worldwide robot takeover.
- Which type of ending did you find more satisfying as a reader? Why?
- Do you think the final ending was effective, given how different it is from the endings of previous chapters? Explain your answer.
For February 2023, the Imagine Society, the Dred Scott Heritage Foundation, and the Green Hill Juvenile Detention Center have partnered together to create a science fiction reading club for teens—and I wrote the discussion questions for all nine books! If you are a teen—or know a teen—who would be interested in exploring some classic and/or contemporary sci-fi, please check out the Imagine Society’s event page. Participation can come in many forms!
If you are able to do so, consider supporting Green Hill Juvenile Detention Center’s young men by donating to their ongoing library book drive. Librarian Julie Forbes works incredibly hard to encourage a love of reading among her students and these donations are extremely important when it comes to achieving that goal.