book-reviews

The Complete Robot

by Isaac Asimov

Rating: ★★★★

The Complete Robot is a collection of the majority of Isaac Asimov's legendary robot stories. Divided into fairly arbitrary subsections, the short stories revolve around the moral and social issues involved in robotics and robot relationships with humanity. Asimov is famous for his Three Laws of Robotics, and many of the stories in this collection explore edge cases of these fundamental laws.

The collection is full of food for thought, delivered either via emotional demonstrations of the surprising range of the utility of robots or (sometimes comic) logical or philosophical explorations of their operation. Recurring characters include a slapstick duo of robot technicians and a rather inhuman robopsychologist.

My main objection to this speculation is that a lot of the preconditions for the central Third Laws are not really well-identified. It's all very well to say that robots can't harm humans, but as a programmer I want to know how such a law could ever really be implemented. How does the machine know something is human? With something so central not yet clarified, a lot of the speculation in the stories seems quite remote. However, you can understand Asimov wanting to skip such technicalities and focus on the more widely graspable social ramifications.

The collection finishes with two rather contrasting visions of the future. In one, a seemingly insignificant change to the Three Laws leads to a disturbing vision of gradual robotic revolution. In the other, Asimov charts out the life of a robot which died as a human, showing in the process that the line between the two is ever less clear cut.

While the stories in the collection never deliver challenges to the Three Laws as devastating as those described in, say, the movie called I, Robot, or even in Asimov's later Foundation work, and some of the concepts Asimov dabbled with are clearly not truly part of the technology landscape of the future to a modern reader, they are genuinely entertaining explorations of this particularly modern dilemma.