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In the book I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, the author wrote several short stories, all usually revolving about robots of different types. It's possible to interpret the short stories with many different themes.

Is there a central theme that connects all of the short stories in the book? If so, what is it?

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The stories of I, Robot - and Asimov's robot stories in general - tend to circle around two central themes:

  1. Humanity's control and understanding of the technology it has created.
  2. Non-human life, and the capacity of life which simulates humanity to feel and be human.

These two themes are in tension with each other, which is part of what makes them such a rich, powerful pairing.

Controlling and Understanding Our Technology

Many of Asimov's robot stories revolve around the Three Laws of Robotics, which are meant to be defining boundaries and keep robots' behavior predictable and nonharmful. And in many of the stories, something goes wrong -- the robots do not behave as expected; an interaction between the Laws arises which is not expected; the Laws turn out to have consequences that were not expected; etc., etc.

As many iconic SF stories do, Asimov posits consequences that are always purely logical. The initial premise of beings following the Three Laws is entirely logical and abstract, and great importance is always placed on the fact that the results - surprising and unexpected though they may be - flow logically from the premise, given the right circumstances.

And so the question that remains, that the stories interrogate, is: Are humans clever enough, wise enough, logical enough, to anticipate all the consequences of the technology they build? Can we deal with what we have created, or are we going to fall into a trap of our own making?

Different stories deal with this in different ways - from Liar!, where Susan Calvin realizes that the consequences of the Laws force a robot to lie and distort reality in order to avoid causing her pain, to The Evitable Conflict, where humanity realizes that robots, in following their rules, have plucked away humanity's agency entirely.

The Humanity of Robots

Many of the stories anthropomorphize and personify the robots -- portraying them as not only machines, but actually capable of emotion, which is effectively as real as our own. This gives rise to a slew of questions about what being "human" truly means -- and if it can be artificially simulated, what does that mean?

Robbie is very clearly in this vein, where Gloria realizes she cannot think of him as anything but an individual. Little Lost Robot toys with the idea of a robot gaining a superiority complex, wanting to prove itself "better" than a human. And so on.


Together, the two themes are extremely intriguing, because they are in tension with another. If robots are, in some way, human, they cannot be anticipated and controlled. And to the extent that they follow logic to whatever conclusion it lead them, then they are clearly something other than human.

There are many ways for these themes to conflict and interact. One example is Reason, where a robot believes he is a prophet, and comes up with bizarre, mystical explanations for the world it observes. Clearly, this robot is behaving irrationally, and in some ways in a very human way -- but the protagonists observe it is still following the Three Laws, so it is being both robotic and human at the same time. This, of course, hints at what further tension could develop if the robot's irrational, human-like beliefs didn't happen to dovetail so nicely with what the humans wanted the robots to do anyway.

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  • I think this answer is a very personal view of I, Robot, quite distinct from what Asimov intended to write. Not that I claim that the author of a book decide what it means, no. But to present these as the central themes of I, Robot feels very biased, seen from a time when Asimov's work has been thoroughly deconstructed. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Feb 13 '17 at 22:48
  • For example, Asimov never really explored how close robots are to humans. He never went very far exploring the first law under the angle “what is human?” (I think the furthest he got was at the end of the Empire series when the Solarians claimed that non-Solarians were not human, but he didn't write the next bit.). He didn't raise the question about human being wise enough to anticipate the consequences — his stories are arranged to make it turn out well somehow. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Feb 13 '17 at 22:49
  • @Gilles Hmmm. I think these suggestions have plenty of support in the text. For example, Asimov never really explored how close robots are to humans. I'd say "The Bicentennial Man" is an iconic "robot desiring to be human/displaying humanity" story, no? – Standback Feb 13 '17 at 23:00
  • He didn't raise the question about human being wise enough to anticipate the consequences -- the fact that the stories end happily, doesn't change the fact that many of them are about something going wrong, confounding the best and the brightest. And, I never said he doesn't come down on humanity's side :) – Standback Feb 13 '17 at 23:02
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The stories in 'I, Robot' all put Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics to the test, trying to find a flaw that undermines the laws.

The Three Laws are first mentioned in 'Runaround'. they are:

  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 Laws.

For example, in 'Catch That Rabbit', the robot goes berserk and the First Law overrides it's behaviour, thus rescuing the Three Laws.

In 'Lost Little Robot' the First Law is programmatically tampered with, and the robot goes into a nervous breakdown.

Another common theme is Dr. Susan Calvin, who releases the stories to the media.

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    Those are more elements than themes, IMHO. "Swords" and "dragons" aren't themes in Song of Ice and Fire; duty, nobility, and maturity are. Likewise, "Laws of robotics" and "Susan Calvin" are recurring elements, but not the themes of the story. – Standback Jan 25 '17 at 19:24
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I think the theme of I, Robot is that robots are more than simple monsters that will eventually destroy humanity, but can be sophisticated creatures even if their behaviour is governed by very simple rules: the Three Laws of Robotics. According to Wikipedia, Asimov found previous depictions of robots to be very one-dimensional:

In The Rest of the Robots, published in 1964, Asimov noted that when he began writing in 1940 he felt that "one of the stock plots of science fiction was ... robots were created and destroyed their creator. Knowledge has its dangers, yes, but is the response to be a retreat from knowledge? Or is knowledge to be used as itself a barrier to the dangers it brings?" He decided that in his stories robots would not "turn stupidly on his creator for no purpose but to demonstrate, for one more weary time, the crime and punishment of Faust."

The robots in I, Robot are specifically engineered to not be directly dangerous: it is impossible for them to "rise up" against humans, and are deeply compelled to serve humanity (except by hurting other humans). They range from simple beings, such as robots who have a nervous breakdown or go into denial, to incredibly complex creatures, such as a robot who runs for public office, a robot who literally "gets lost" and -- my personal favourite -- the robot who lies.

To respond to the answers previously posted here, I don't think Asimov is specifically saying that robots may be dangerous or unpredictable or human, and I don't think the point is to do with the Three Laws specifically. I think Asimov is saying that machines who can think but whose thinking is designed to be limited may yet come up with complex behavior that we don't understand, but which makes perfect sense to them. Dr. Susan Calman, the "robot whisperer" who figures out why the robots are doing what they're doing on several occasions, acts as our translator, and without her the robots' actions might appear to be dangerous or unpredictable or human, but Asimov shows us in all these stories that they arise only from simple rules and logic.

A more modern perspective on I, Robot might be the theme of complex behavior arising from simple rules, or emergent behavior -- especially prominent in stories where robots appear to be behaving erratically, but are revealed to be trying to stay within the strictures of their programming. But I don't know if that's what Asimov was thinking of.

In terms of writing, an interesting comparison might be Ronald Knox's "Ten Commandments" of detective fiction: you could think of the I, Robot stories (and all of Asimov's robot fiction) as Asimov restricting what he could do (no directly killing humans! robots must obey any order except those that kill humans!) and still come up with a compelling mystery, detective story or dystropian world.

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