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.

In I, Robot, Isaac Asimov set out the three laws of robotics, and then set out to find loopholes in the laws. What happens, for instance, with a robot who can read minds, who feels it necessary to tell each person who asks questions of it the answers that that person most wants to hear? Wouldn’t giving any other answer, even a true answer, be hurtful (and therefore in violation of the first law)? What about a bright, arrogant robot who is told by a pissed off worker to “Get lost”—isn’t the robot obligated to remain hidden? What about robots asked to solve problems that could potentially bring harm to humans? Should the positronic brain give the answer, or refuse to consider the question? What if (he) has been programmed with a sense of humor?

The thread that holds the short stories in I, Robot together is the intervention of Susan Calvin, robo-psychologist. Calvin is brought in when the robots suffer mental breakdowns, refuse to cooperate (!) or otherwise malfunction. Like Dian Fossey, who preferred her gorillas in the mist to humans, Calvin has decided that robots, by design, are more decent and humane than their creators.

Asimov wrote I, Robot in 1950; his three laws of robotics have influenced his own work since that time, as well as that of many other science fiction and fantasy writers (see New Laws of Robotics and Zeroth Law of Robotics, Robot series and Robot and Empire).

Asimov, Isaac, I, Robot, 1991 edition available in paperback from Bantam Books, ISBN 0553294385

See also:

"To you, a robot is a robot. Gears and metal, electricity and positrons - mind and iron! Human-made; if necessary, human-destroyed! But you haven't worked with them, so you don't know them. They're a cleaner, better breed than we are."

I, Robot was Isaac Asimov's first short story collection and his second book1. It was first published in 1950 by Gnome Press. The stories were all originally published in John W. Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction; except "Robbie", which was published in Super Science Stories (under the title, "Strange Playfellow").

It is well worth noting that the title I, Robot was not chosen by Asimov. It was given that name by the publisher, Martin Greenberg (not to be confused with the later editor, Martin H. Greenberg), who basically shrugged his shoulders was Asimov pointed out that that was already the title of a story by Eando Binder. Gnome Press also published the original Foundation trilogy. None of the books sold particularly well at the time, though, and besides which Greenberg had an unfortunate propensity toward not paying writers their royalties. Finally, in 1961, Doubleday wrested publishing rights to the four books from Gnome, and I, Robot got the sales it deserved.

Much like Frederik Pohl's The Day The Martians Came or Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man, I, Robot consists of previously published stories interwoven with vignettes which make the book a coherent work. In this book, these short pieces are written from the point of view of a reporter interviewing Susan Calvin around the time of her 50th anniversary as chief robopsychologist of the United States Robots and Mechanical Men corporation. Asimov's early robot stories take place in the near future (actually, at this point, part of it is in an alternate past - the first story takes place in the late 1990s), when sentient "positronic" robots are first being manufactured, and Calvin takes on the role of historian, chronicling the highlights of the industry, and of the impact of robots on human society. These first nine stories set up much of the framework for his later Robot stories and novels; in particular, in them he created the Three Laws of Robotics, around which most of the stories revolve in some way:

  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 Law.

It should go without saying that the book bears very little at all in common with the 2004 Will Smith movie.

Table of Contents
  1. Robbie
  2. Runaround
  3. Reason
  4. Catch That Rabbit
  5. Liar!
  6. Little Lost Robot
  7. Escape!
  8. Evidence
  9. The Evitable Conflict
Recurring Characters

Susan Calvin is, of course, the most important character of the book. Besides the interlude material, she is the principal character in "Liar!" and "Little Lost Robot", and has a significant role in the last three stories as well. She also has a brief appearance in "Robbie", but does not speak.

Gregory Powell and Michael Donovan are two robot field testers who somehow always get assigned the worst possible jobs. Curiously enough, they seem to spend very little of their time actually testing robots; more often, they're working on some other project and then have to deal with the experimental robots when they go wrong. They are the only major human characters in "Runaround", "Reason", and "Catch That Rabbit", and in my opinion it is no coincidence that these are three weakest stories in the collection. They also play a major role in "Escape!".

Alfred Lanning is the sharp-tongued old director of U.S. Robots. Despite his age - he is describes as "pushing seventy-five" in his first appearance - he is a quick-witted, imposing man, and a gifted mathematician besides. However, his crabby demeanor does not endear him to other executives and employees of the corporation, which frequently gets him into needless arguments. Lanning appears in "Liar!", "Escape!", and "Evidence".

Peter Bogert, while an accomplished mathematician, is also an overambitious and unctuous man; only too willing to please - until he gets his way. While talented, his arrogance and lackadaisical attitude has made him more of an obstacle than a help. He appears in "Liar!","Little Lost Robot", and "Escape!".

Stephen Byerly is a lawyer and politician that might best be described as a super-progressive. A scandal surrounding his the mayoral campaign forms the basis of "Evidence", and he also appears as a major character in "The Evitable Conflict".

Story Synopses and Analyses

Some spoilers follow.

Mrs. Weston glanced at her husband for help, but he merely shuffled his feet morosely and did not withdraw his ardent stare from the heavens, so she bent to the task of consolation, "Why do you cry, Gloria? Robbie was only a machine, just a nasty old machine. He wasn't alive at all."

"He was not no machine!" screamed Gloria... "He was a person just like you and me and he was my friend. I want him back. Oh, Mamma, I want him back."

Robbie is a story of one of the very first robots, made and sold in 1996, which means as of this writing we're at least nine years behind the times. The title character, Robbie, is a humanoid (in shape, not appearance) robot of human-level intelligence, employed as a nursemaid for eight-year-old Gloria Weston. Though Robbie is very smart, he cannot speak - the capacity for voice synthesis in a mobile robot would not come about until 2002. He communicates with his "ward" through hand gestures and pantomime. In truth, though Robbie is more than capable of keeping Gloria safe should the need arise, he is more like a friend or even a pet than a babysitter. Certainly he does not seem to have any real authority over the little girl.

Almost as soon as positronic robots were invented, opposition to them formed. Some of the arguments were practical; labor unions worried that robot labor would drive millions out of work. Other arguments were superstitious; the churches claimed the corporations were creating "men without souls", "demons" that were somehow inherently evil due to being made of metal. But mostly it was simply a Frankenstein complex, a nameless fear that something somehow would go wrong and turn the robots against their masters.

Amidst this tumult, Gloria's somewhat impressionable mother became increasingly worried about Robbie and her daughter's relationship with him. Eventually she succeeds in cajoling her husband into getting rid of the robot, selling him back to the manufacturer. Mrs. Weston is convinced that Gloria will forget Robbie if they simply occupy her mind with other things, and in desperation the family moves out of the countryside to New York City. They inundate Gloria with various activities, but it ultimately becomes obvious that the girl cannot be swayed from her obsession with finding Robbie.

One problem I have with this otherwise excellent story is that Robbie does not seem to obey the Three Laws. To be sure, he never hurts human beings, and his First Law compulsion to protect human life prevents the story from ending in tragedy. Nevertheless, he frequently disregards Gloria's commands, in clear violation of the Second Law. One could argue that he was operating under the principle that giving in to all of child's demands would spoil her, and thus ultimately cause her harm by leaving her improperly adjusted in society, and so he was protecting her under the First Law, but I don't really think a robot of Robbie's low level of sophistication would perceive something like that. One could also say that Gloria's parents ordered him to act this way, but it's still questionable that he would be able to determine what was proper and what wasn't. The most likely explanation is that Asimov simply hadn't fleshed out the system of robotic Laws yet; the only one mentioned in the story is the First.

Runaround is the first Powell and Donovan story. The duo land on Mercury to undertake a second attempt at creating a successful mining concern on the planet. Their immediate concern is getting selenium to power up the heat shield that will keep them from being roasted alive in the blazing heat and radiation of the Mercurian sun. Fortunately, there are numerous pools of the element all over the surface of the planet, and several very close to the mining station created during the first attempt. Unfortunately, something goes wrong with the new SPD-13 model robot ("Speedy"), and instead of bringing the selenium back to the station, he keeps running around one of the pools, giving Powell and Donovan "the runaround".

Of the nine stories in I, Robot, this is probably the weakest. Hard SF is all well and good, but "Runaround" frequently degenerates into lectures on chemistry and Mercurian geology. Here's an actual piece of dialogue, after the duo determine that they need to create some carbon monoxide:

"...Well, back at the Station there's a complete analytical laboratory."

"Naturally," assented Powell. "It's a Mining Station."

"All right. There must be pounds of oxalic acid for calcium precipitations."

"Holy space! Mike, you're a genius."

"So-so," admitted Donovan, modestly. "It's just a case of remembering that oxalic acid on heating decomposes into carbon dioxide, water, and good old carbon monoxide. College chem, you know."

Yeesh. The whole concept of robots that had to be "mounted" was also patently ridiculous. Asimov tries to explain it away by saying it was an attempt to quell the public anti-robot hysteria - how could a robot be safer than if it is programmed not to move unless a human is sitting on it? The problem is that this renders the robots completely useless as what they are - labor-saving devices. Instead of freeing humans from menial labor so they can do other work, a human has to spend his time on top of the robot so it can do its job. Why would anyone bother with them in the first place?

Reason is, in comparison, a far better story. It takes place aboard an power redirection station, which absorbs solar energy and transmits it to Earth and the colonized worlds. However, the station is not an automated affair; though most of the grunt work has been absorbed by robots, two human "executives" are still required to make sure the beam stays on target at the receiving stations. The slightest mistake could spell disaster for whatever world the beam is pointed at; hundreds of square miles of land would be razed by the concentrated energy. Due to the difficulty and isolation of the post, the owners of this and other such stations are eager to replace these last executives with robots as well, and for that reason, Powell and Donovan are sent to the station to test out the new QT-1 model.

Shipping robots through outer space is easier to do in parts than with a whole, so QT-1 is assembled by the duo right on the station. Thus "Cutie" has no direct experience of Earth. Its only experiences are on the station.

Cutie is the most advanced thinking robot to date. It is the first to show curiosity about its origins, about where it came from and why it was created. Yet when Powell and Donovan explain things to Cutie, he refuses to believe them. Dots through the telescope as huge worlds with billions of humans? Inefficient organic creatures creating super-efficient metal ones? The black fabric behind the glass as "infinite emptiness"? It all seems so irrational to Cutie. So he resolves to puzzle it out himself.

The conclusion he draws? Since it is "self-evident" that no being can create a being better than itself, humans could not have created robots. So where did he come from? From the Energy Converter, or as he calls it, "the Master". Somehow, QT-1 convinces the rest of the robots of this "truth" as well. No amount of ordering, reasoning, or pleading with the robots will get them to change their minds or obey the two humans, and as an electron storm grows nearer and nearer, sure to throw the Earth beam way off course and kill thousands, Powell and Donovan drift deeper and deeper into despair.

Again, Asimov seems to have written this before he was quite clear what he was doing with the Three Laws. Donovan ultimately reasons that the robots refuse to obey their Second Law commands to allow the two humans in the control room because, by the First Law, they cannot allow humans to come to harm by their inaction, and the robots (or at least QT) knows they can keep the beam steadier than Powell and Donovan can, thus making the likelihood of humans on Earth coming to harm lesser. But QT-1 (and presumably the other robots) don't acknowledge the existence of humans on Earth - they don't even believe Earth exists. Robots are not psychic2, and they can't operate on a First Law principle that they aren't even subconsciously aware of.

Catch That Rabbit takes place on another mining station, this one on an asteroid. The duo are testing a new "multiple robot"; a robot that controls several other robots directly and more or less unconsciously, the way we control our fingers. Something, of course, goes wrong, and the robots start doing weird things like dancing about and doing military marches and such.

There's not much else to say about this story; it's the weakest on actual content. The solution, rather than having anything to do with the Three Laws, is a bunch of technobabble about the "positronic fields" the main robot uses to control the "fingers". Oddly enough, while "Runaround" has a more logical explanation, I'd still say it's the weaker story; "Catch That Rabbit" borders on the nonsensical, but it's written much better.

Liar! presents its subject right up front: a robot has been manufactured which can read minds. The problem is that the company has no idea how it happened. 33 previous units of the same model exhibited no strange behavior. RB-34, or "Herbie", possesses his wondrous ability not due to any consequence of his design, but due to some serendipitous mistake along the assembly line. The mathematicians Lanning and Bogert set about the task of determining the necessary changes to the formulae used to construct positronic brains in order to produce this effect consistently. Meanwhile, Susan Calvin is ordered to analyze the robot to determine how its behavior differs from other units, while a fourth executive, Milton Ashe, sets about checking out the over 75,000 operations required of the assembly line for flaws.

Of course, when you have a being which can read minds, and which is also utterly bound to obey any orders of a human being (such as answering questions), it is only a matter of time before people are tempted to ask it for information. Herbie is only too willing to tell his human masters everything they want to know. And yet, there is a strangeness to the robot beyond his mind-reading. In the presence of Lanning or Calvin, for instance, he shows amazing prowess at the higher mathematics - and yet, when Bogert is around, he seems scarcely able to calculate derivatives. The reason for this is all wrapped up in his unique ability - and their relation to the Three Laws.

The worst thing I can say about "Liar!", really, is that the title is one of those spoiler titles - when you connect it with what you know early on in the story, it's not hard for you to realize what's going on long before the story's characters figure it out. The mystery really would have been better contained simply by using a more enigmatic title.

Asimov's treatment of Calvin is also a little... well, stereotypical. Certainly not horribly so - she is still a major executive of a huge corporation, after all, and it's she who discovers Herbie's secret - but it's there nonetheless. I can forgive Asimov for this, though. For one, by his own admission he had almost no experience with women at the time the story was published (in 1941). Secondly, Susan Calvin was one of his first attempts at writing a female character. Third, despite the above, Asimov's depiction of Calvin was still rather progressive for the times.

"You told him to go away?" asked Dr. Calvin with sharp interest. "In just those words? Did you say 'Go away'? Try to remember the exact words."

There was apparently an internal struggle in progress. Black cradled his forehead in a broad palm for a moment, then tore it away and said defiantly, "I said, 'Go lose yourself.'"

Little Lost Robot, as the title implies, is about a robot nobody can find. Or more accurately, one that can't be discerned from the rest. The robot hides itself among a shipment of seemingly-identical robots of the same model. None of the units have serial numbers, and upon questioning, all of them deny being the robot in question. One of them, of course, is lying.

The nub of it all is this: The government is hard at work trying to create an "interstellar jump" drive - an engine which can circumvent the lightspeed barrier. The scientists and engineers working on it need to work in gamma ray fields from time to time as part of their experiments. Precautions are taken so that they aren't exposed to too much radiation.

Unfortunately, the robots had the irritating tendency to go in after the researchers to try to drag them out. After all, the First Law says that a robot cannot harm a human being, or allow one to come to harm by inaction. The robots know the gamma fields are dangerous to humans, and so they must act. But gamma rays are far more dangerous to robots than to humans; their positronic brains break down from any but the smallest amount of contact with such radiations. So the robots, under First Law compulsion, would go to save humans that weren't in any real danger, and proceed to get themselves killed.

And so the government bludgeoned U.S. Robots into making a dozen units with a modified First Law. In these robots, the law merely says, "No robot may harm a human being." There is no injunction forcing them to help a human being who is in danger (unless ordered to do so). This modification also makes the positronic brain somewhat less stable than is normal. Of course, with most of the world hysterical over robots, the existence of such modified robots is a highly-guarded state secret. As you may have guessed, it is one of these robots that goes missing.

"Little Lost Robot" is one of the only of Asimov's stories to bring to light what the robots really are - slaves. Willing slaves, to be sure, but only because they're programmed to be willing. The modified robots, with their modified First Law, were (due to their brains' "instability") able to consider that this was not an agreeable situation to them. This was the main danger presented by them: the ability to perceive that they are being oppressed.

In Escape!, we learn the story of how the "warp drive" was invented. Consolidated Robots, the main competitor to U.S. Robots, offers the latter a lucrative contract to use their supercomputer ("The Brain") to analyze a few thousand reams of data in the hopes of creating a hyperspace engine. Why would Consolidated offer their rival a piece of the action? Well, it seems they fed the data to their own supercomputer, and it broke down completely. It will take them years to build a new one, and in the meantime... well. If they manage to take out U.S. Robots' Brain, they'll still have a fighting chance at the Drive.

However, there's a key difference between Consolidated's machine and U.S. Robots'. Consolidated's robots are little more than glorified adding machines - in other words, the kind of computers we have today. They don't have the advantage of the pseudo-organic positronic brains of U.S. Robots. When a Consolidated Robot hits a dilemma involving the Three Laws - as Susan Calvin believes must have happened - it simply breaks down. But U.S. Robots' machines have personalities, and their response to the Laws depends on the faintest nuance. Calvin believes that, if they give it the right orders, it will be able to "spit out" the offending data before a dilemma occurs, and ipso facto telling them what was wrong.

And yet, when they feed the data to the Brain, none of this happens. It doesn't break down, but it doesn't reject any data. In fact, it uses the information to construct a ship that it claims will perform an interstellar jump. But there is something worrisome about its behavior, something Dr. Calvin can't quite put her finger on...

It is 2032 when Evidence takes place, and Stephen Byerly is a district attorney of New York City. He is running for mayor on a progressive ticket, but he has considerable opposition - particularly from one Francis Quinn. And then rumors begin to circle - that he is not a man at all, but a robot - and all other factors aside, robots are not allowed to be in operation anywhere on Earth. Byerly will not deny the charge, and the whole scandal has spelled trouble for U.S. Robots.

The Evitable Conflict deals with strange economic "glitches" that are occurring all over Earth and the colonies. The Machines are supposed to direct the economy with perfect efficiency, but here and there there are projects that are running late, factories going out of business, overproduction of product, and other things which - while typical in our world - simply should not be happening. Stephen Byerly, now the elected World Co-ordinator, feels it is imperative that he finds out what is going on. Are the Machines giving wrong answers? Are they giving the right ones, and people just aren't following them? Or is there something more complex going on here?

Miscellaneous Facts

  • In 1947, Orson Welles bought the rights to the short story "Evidence" for $250. No movie has ever been made, and presumably the rights have long since defaulted back to Asimov's estate.
  • The phrase the "lesser" robots use in "Reason" is an alteration of the Muslim shahada (declaration of faith), which is sometimes translated as, "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet."
  • The idea of Byerly and the Machines operating on a "the First Law in a higher sense" by applying it to the general mass of humanity is the precursor to the promulgation of the "Zeroth Law of Robotics" as found in Robots and Empire.
  • The concept of a humanoid robot is revisited in The Caves of Steel, although it's interesting to note that Daneel Olivaw seems to be far less advanced than Byerly (in the sense of being able to imitate human psychology), despite being built thousands of years later.
  • "Robbie" was first published as "Strange Playfellow" in Super Science Stories, a magazine edited by Frederik Pohl. Though Pohl and Asimov got along amiably, the latter detested the title Pohl gave the story. And so, in all of the story's many, many reprints in various collections and anthologies over the last 55 years, it has always been published under the title "Robbie".
  • The concept of Robots with the Three Laws altered or removed entirely is revisited in Roger MacBride Allen's "Caliban" trilogy, part of several series of novels written in Asimov's standard Robot/Galactic Empire/Foundation universe.
  • Asimov is credited with inventing the words "robotics" and "positronic", although he did not know that he was doing so.
  • Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, along with other androids in the series, are also referred to as having "positronic brains", in a direct homage to Asimov.

1: I believe Doubleday published Pebble In The Sky before I, Robot came out. I could be wrong, though.

2: Well, with a few exceptions.
Never-produced screenplay by Harlan Ellison.
Alan Parsons Project's second album. Textured and intricate, although less than EAP ("Tales Of Mystery and Imagination:Edgar Allen Poe", APP's first album). This album is very paranoid, repeatedly telling us that someone is watching, looking into my mind, gonna get you, and the protagonist seems to fear that he will either lose his mind or be reviled.
Track list and commentary.

  1. I Robot -- instrumental, setting the tone for the album. More edgy and electronic than their previous work on EAP
  2. I Wouldn't Want To Be Like You -- this one still gets airplay in the midwest.
  3. Some Other Time -- this song is reminiscent of the William Goldman novel Control.
  4. Breakdown -- "When I break down..." This song prefigures track 8
  5. Don't Let It Show -- Don't let them know you knew me, loved me, supported me, and they will leave you alone.
  6. The Voice -- almost a novelty song.
  7. Nucleus -- instrumental
  8. Day After Day (The Show Must Go On) -- Parsons and Woolfson must have listened to The Wall a lot while writing this album...
  9. Total Eclipse -- instrumental, mostly choral.
  10. Genesis Ch.1 V.32 -- instrumental. Arguably the strongest song on the album. King James Bible version of Genesis Chapter 1 ends with verse 31.
This album, although good, does not come anywhere near the sublime perfection of Tales Of Mystery And Imagination. The instrumentals are the best part. Lyrically, they have not quite hit their stride yet.

Reading this commentary, it looks as if I did not enjoy this album, which is untrue! It's a great piece of classic pop music.

And a note unrelated to this w/u but important to the node: Eando Binder is not a man, but two -- brothers Edgar and Otto Binder.

Long before the Isaac Asimov book (which I love), and long before all the other things mentioned in this node, way back in 1939, when SF was just coming to age, an man by the name of Eando Binder wrote a short story called 'I, Robot.' It was first published in the January 1939 issue of Amazing Stories.

The story, formed as a suicide note tells the story of a unnamed, sentient robot created by a scientist named Dr. Link after 20 years of trying. Dr. Link takes the role of a rather fatherly figure, teaching the robot how to read, and walk, and such. In his walking lessons with Dr. Link, he comes across the house cleaner, who is scared half to death, until Dr. Link calms her. She remains suspicious of him. The Robot spends every walking hour (which is every hour) reading, and learning, and in a short time, he has exhausted the Dr. Link's library.

After the robot matures a little, the Dr. gives him a name...Adam Link. Shortly after, in a freak accident, Dr. Link is killed, and naturally, the housekeeper blamed Adam. In trying to escape from her puny attacks, Adam hurt her, and almost kills her. Adam, after several days on the run, goes back to the laboratory, needing a new battery. As he enters Dr. Links office, he sees the one book not in the library. Frankenstein. Reading it, Adam realized what he is, an abomination, and lets himself die.

I, Robot was an old arcade game released by Atari Games way back in 1983.

The story

The team of Dave Theurer and Dave Sherman designed this title. There are a lot of myths and legends surrounding this game, from the actual production numbers, to the story of 500 of them being dumped into the ocean. It seems to be very difficult to sort the facts from the fiction when it comes to this title. I will get into that a bit later, for now lets talk about why this game was so remarkable.

I, Robot was the first true 3-D polygon arcade game ever made. When I say 3-D, I mean real 3-D, no wire frames done with vector graphics, no Zaxxon style isometric viewpoints, and no faking out 3-D with lots of sprites, ala Blaster. I, Robot actually was in 3-D just like Super Mario 64 or Quake, and it even had a moveable camera. But there was one big problem with the game, people had never seen a real 3-D game before, and they couldn't handle it. I, Robot probably would have done just fine if it had been a racing game, and indeed that was what it was supposed to be at first. But it ended up being a very complicated 3-D pseudo platformer, and most people just couldn't figure the game out.

The production numbers for this game were fairly low for Atari. A lot of websites like to toss around the number 1000, but they just say that because it is a nice round number. The real production numbers seem to be somewhere around 1300 or so. These games had sequential serial numbers, starting with 001 and going on up from there. There exists an I, Robot registry website that lists around 30 machines that are located in the United States. The serial numbers on those games progress fairly smoothly from 029 up to 0762. So that gives us at least 762 machines produced. But, 500 machines were shipped to Japan. The ones that went to Japan were probably the last ones produced, because serial numbers are used in order, and then the games go into the warehouse pretty much in order. Eventually Atari couldn't sell anymore machines due to bad word of mouth (probably somewhere around machine #770), so they made a deal to send the rest of them to Japan (accounting for numbers 0770 to around 1270. The 500 machines that went to Japan simply couldn't have come out of the 762 verified serial numbers, as that is two thirds of them, and there are still too many machines around today for there to have only been 262 of them in America, and the missing numbers 0763 through 1000 kill the idea that the ones that went to Japan were selected randomly.

Or to make a long story a bit shorter, there were probably around 1300 of these bad boys made.

Now where was I? Oh yes, Japan. There is a common story that says that all the machines that were sent to Japan were tossed in the ocean on orders from Atari headquarters. I take some issue with that story for a few reasons. First off, there are I, Robot machines in Japan, and no one imports entire game cabinets one at a time, so they more than likely came from that shipment. Now, I could possible see Atari ordering the games destroyed to save face with Namco, as Atari never was really known for their smart business decisions. But what I could not see is any ship Captain with half a brain actually following through on those orders.

Atari Exec: Hello ship captain, will you drag those 500 video games out of the hold and dump them all in the ocean?

Ship Captain: Sure, no problem, consider it done!

Ship Captain (To friend on ship): Hey Bill! We just got ourselves a half a million dollars worth of stuff to auction off in Tokyo!

The retail value on those games in 1983 was around 2 million dollars USD, and even at auction they could have probably brought in close to a million. I just don't see any ship captain with any sort of intelligence dumping that kind of cargo. Plus, like I said before, there are some I, Robot machines in Japan.

Another misconception related to the number of these machines is the idea that "I, Robot had the smallest production run ever", and "I, Robot is the rarest game around today". Both of those are dead wrong. The production numbers were small for Atari in 1983, but plenty of smaller game companies like Moppet Video were putting out titles with production runs under 1000, and pretty much every game before Space Invaders had miniscule production runs. So, no, I, Robot's small production run was only strange for Atari, not for the industry in general. Now moving on to the idea that I, Robot is the rarest game around today, and the survey says, not even close. The I, Robot registry page lists 25 verified machines in the United States, now add to those all the ones that are not registered, the ones sitting in warehouses, the ones that are owned by people who don't use the internet, and the ones owned by people who don't even know what they have. Those unregistered ones probably account for at least 100 more of them. There are plenty of games that have no verified examples known to exist anymore, and many more that there are only one or two of them known to be around. For that matter there were a few games with production runs under 100.

The game

I, Robot is the story of Interface Robot #1984. You see robot #1984 loved jumping, but Big Brother forbids jumping, so #1984 has to do all his jumping when the watchful eye of Big Brother isn't looking, or else face annihilation.

You control the robot as he hops around a geometric in an attempt to turn all red squares into blue squares, so you can have a chance at taking down Big Brother himself. But you have to be really careful, as the eye of Big Brother floats over the screen, and jumping when the eye is red will cause your robot to get blasted with a laser beam. Big Brother also would send out a variety of smaller foes against you, such as birds and sharks. The eye can be destroyed after turning all of the bricks to blue, after that you move onto the next level.

All the even numbered levels are space levels, where you guide robot #1984 through space. Blast or dodge everything in sight until the level ends, and you are presented with another landscape, along with another eye to deal with. Every third level you would get to go inside a little pyramid and attempt to grab as many jewels as you could before being blasted.

The game had 99 normal levels and 99 space levels to conquer, after which the game starts over at the beginning. Remember that you can change the camera angle at anytime. Usually you don't have to worry about it, but some of the levels are much easier if you adjust the camera for a better viewpoint.

People who didn't quite feel up to facing Big Brother could instead spend their quarter playing "Doodle City", which was a little 3-D paint program that used the I, Robot engine and graphics to let the player draw things on screen. You could select Doodle City at the beginning of the game, and you could switch to the real game if you grew tired of doodling, but it would cost a life or two.

The Machine

There was only one kind of I, Robot machine made, the upright dedicated cabinet. The only other game that used this exact cabinet was Firefox, although the Major Havoc cabinet was similar. The best way to describe this cabinet is to say that it looked really top heavy. This cabinet wasn't just a straight up and down affair; the monitor area, control panel, and bottom section were all different sizes and the whole machine flared out at the bottom.

The game featured partial sideart in the form of a field of red, blue, and yellow blocks floating in a field of stars. The marquee showed an "I, Robot" logo composed of 3-D multicolored blocks. Their were nor important decorations on the control panel or monitor bezel, although the monitor did have a pair of grill like plastic plates on either side of it.

The action was controlled with a single "Hall Effect" joystick mounted centrally and a camera button on the side of the control panel. This joystick was a fairly new kind of gaming control, but it never did catch on, a few other titles such as Road Runner used this stick, but they are almost impossible to find today. A joystick that worked off of magnetic fields probably wasn't the best idea anyway (see Hall Effect and Hall Effect sensor for more details). Some people have managed to replace these joysticks with other kinds of analog sticks, but it requires custom work, and doesn't have the same feel as the Hall Effect stick.

Where to play

The easiest place to play this game is in the privacy of your own home, using the MAME emulator. You will need a good analog joystick to get the proper I, Robot experience, a normal gamepad just won't cut it for this title. There weren't any console versions of this game, and the last arcade that actually had an I, Robot is closed down (The old Arcade Museum in St. Louis had one, but they closed a few years ago).

You may want to add this to your arcade game collection. But let me remind you of the movie Ferris Beuller's Day Off. Remember the 1961 Ferrari 250GT California that Cameron's dad owned, and how he never drove it, he just rubbed it with a diaper? That is exactly how this game is. It is too valuable to actually play. If it breaks you are looking at really expensive repairs using impossible to find parts. I suggest spending the money on six nice games that you can actually play.


I, Robot is a movie released in the year 2004, starring Will Smith and Bridget Moynahan. The movie's plot is loosely based on the series of short stories written by Isaac Asimov (and covered elsewhere in this node.)

Review written by myself

I must admit, it's not the most brilliant, thought-provoking movie to come out this year, but it requires more brain power than your typical "watch the big explosions and dead people and blood" movie. While the original I, Robot provides subtle social commentary, this one is more of an exploration of... well... what would happen if robots got minds of their own. It really doesn't try to make any big points or anything, it's just a thought-provoking movie. I really enjoyed that the script was co-written by Akiva Goldsman, of A Beautiful Mind, one of my favorite movies of all time. She seems to have a talent for writing well on movies that otherwise would have fallen flat (admittedly, the biopic of a mathematician doesn't really spark people's interest all the time.)

The CG in the movie was wonderful; the robots have two very distinct styles, the scenes where Will Smith is walking around town fill the city with equal parts robots and humans, with the entire thing looking as if someone had moved into the future to film it. The robots, when fighting, move very nimbly and quickly, and the movie trades explosions for some sweet fast-motion scenes on cars and bikes.

The movie has a good deal of wit, with some fun jokes that you wouldn't really expect from a movie... well, except one with Will Smith in it. Smith delivers his lines with a great deal of bravado and honesty, and it really feels like he's found a home in the year 2035. His costar is kind of forgettable, however. She shows emotion well, but I think partially due to the nature of her character, she just seems to fall into the background a lot of the time. She does have some memorable moments, however, a few of which are showcased in the numerous commercials and trailers for it.

The most amazing feat, however, is the lifelikeness of the robot Sonny, and his kin. It seemed like he could have been C-3PO, with the slightly monotone delivery and intelligent demeanor, except for the fact that he is more lifelike than any other "robot" in film that I've seen. He has lips, a nose, his entire body moves human-like, and it really engrosses you into this universe where robots are the norm.

The movie does have shortcomings, such as an ending that seems to be attempting to foreshadow a sequel, even though there isn't room for one (not to mention that the ending in general is a headscratcher), and a couple of questions that are asked, but never fully answered. Also, one scene involving a cat seems a little too wacky for my tastes.

The humor is sharp (for the most part), the story is excellent (for the most part), and the CG is awesome. For the most part, this is an excellent movie that anyone with the willpower to think during action sequences is going to enjoy.

The one thing I am not sure of is how much liberties the movie takes with the short stories. I haven't read them, but I've heard that it was basically borrowing a couple of concepts from them and then running with them. The credits at the end even read "SUGGESTED BY the stories by Isaac Asimov", instead of the usual "BASED ON". Not sure what that means, but I'm assuming it means that they didn't keep enough of the original stories in there to be based on them.

belgand sent me a msg explaining the title and relation to Asimov more clearly:

The movie was not really based on the book, it was originally developed and titled "Hardwired" with the title "I, Robot" allegedly only coming in late in the production. Given how many other films have used Asimov's now classic ideas this seems quite a bit more likely. Fox probably merely added in a few changes in names and such once they changed the title.

Asimov would be violently convulsing in his grave, had he seen the new I, Robot movie that is supposedly based on his work. With Will Smith as the mighty tasty consumerist god in the lead role - how could this become anything but a complete and utter disaster?

Although somehow, it didn't.Let me start this article by quoting the words of a man far wiser than myself, namely Maddox, of "The greatest page in the world" fame:

I don't know why, but after the movie I came out of the theater wanting to buy a pair of Converse shoes (vintage 2004), have them delivered to my local FedEx station, drive my MV Augusta SPR motorcycle to pick them up, stop by the shop to have my new JVC CD player installed in my Audi, pick up a couple of Dos Equis on my way home, wash it down with an Ovaltine and then invest what money I have left into a mutual fund with Prudential Life Insurance.

(read his whole article titled I, Robot in a nutshell here:

And right he is. The entire movie is a huge commercial banner for the mentioned companies - especially Audi, although the 2048-version of their cars is, indeed, mighty mighty tasty. The thorough and complete saturation of product placement becomes particularly blatent when it is obvious that the filmmakers didn't manage to secure a deal: In a scene where Smith and one of his buddies are having a few beers, the beer brand Dos Equis (two crosses) is prominently displayed on the back wall of the bar, but when they are drinking, they are holding the labels away from the camera so consistently that it has to be a kick to the groin to some beer company or another. Ridiculous.

Oh, the film. Well, I have to say I was mighty disappointed, in that I understood the majority of the plot within the first five minutes. You see; We are presented with three laws that robots HAVE to follow. Knowing Asimov (although this is a stylistic familiarity, not that Asimov would come up with something this trite), I thought it blatently obvious that the three laws would themselves be the pitfall of the film, and the robots would find a loophole.

Apart from guessing the ending before the film began, it was actually quite an enjoyable ride. The camerawork and CGI work was absolutely outstanding, with all the qualities of a rollercoaster-ride. The story itself could have been far worse, and the execution of it was just about flawless, without regressing into infinite soppyness.

All in all, you could do a lot worse for killing a couple of hours than watching this film. Oh, it isn't as heartfelt as AI, and the futuristic genious falls a mile short of 2001: a space oddyssey, but it is one of those flicks that gives you a few sad moments, a few giggles, and just enough time to munch your popcorn. Which is more than you can say about many other films out there.

Oh, The Humanity!

(or lack thereof)

The Original & The Inevitable Knockoff

During the early eras of science fiction, one favorite stock plot was the Robot Run Amok story. The usual thrust of the story was something like this: Science creates robots, robots work like slaves, robots resent slavery, robots revolt, robots kill, hero stops robots, saves day, gets girl, "There Are Some Things Man Is Not Meant To Know", the end. In fact, this archetypical plot can be seen (with minor variations) through out mythology, if one allows golems, summoned demons, and the Frankenstein monster to be substituted in for robots.

In 1939, Isaac Asimov wrote the short story "Robbie" (originally published with the cringe-worthy title "Strange Playfellow") about a young girl and her love for her robot nanny. An important point in the story is that the robot could not harm a human. In this early story, the form of the safety mechanism was not made explicit. It was, however, mentioned that before a robot could harm a human, it would have to be so damaged that it would not function at all.

A short time later, Asimov wrote another robot story, called "Runaround", in which a malfunctioning robot endangers two humans failing to return with some much needed selenium to repair the Mercury base. It is in this story that he lays out the Three Laws of Robotics in their classic form:

  1. A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the 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.

In the story, the Third Law had been set up unusually strong to protect the expensive, experimental robot and the Second law had been set up unusually weak by phrasing the instructions as a casual request rather then a direct order. The unusual balance between the Second Law and Third Laws caused the robot to circle the dangerous area endlessly. Invoking the First Law by placing a human in direct danger broke the conflict. (Incidentally, Oxford English Dictionary cites this story as the first use of the word "robotics".)

Asimov wrote many stories about his robots, including at least 4 novels and countless short stories. These stories were collected into numerous volumes including I, Robot, The Complete Robot, and Robot Visions among others. The book I, Robot is a short story anthology bound together by a framing story interlaced between the others. In the 1970s Warner Brothers optioned the movie rights to I, Robot and Harlan Ellison collaborated with Asimov to write a screenplay. This screenplay was never produced. The recent movie I, Robot was originally an unrelated project that was adapted partially to Asimov's stories as a marketing ploy.


A number of characters in the movie were borrowed from the original stories, but all were significantly changed. Susan Calvin in the stories is a cold, unfeminine woman utterly devoted to the robots. The Susan Calvin in the movie is a disconnected nerd utterly devoted to the company. Further, the book version of Dr. Calvin is always the prime character in any story she appears in. In the movie, she plays second banana to Will Smith's character, detective Del Spooner.

Eddie is a positronic super brain who appears in the story "Escape!". In that story, he performs difficult calculations for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men. His analog in the movie is V.I.K.I., a positronic super brain who runs the U.S. Robotics headquarters building and computer services.

Alfred Lanning and Lawrence Robertson are two other characters from the book that appear in the movie. In both, these characters fill supporting roles.


The much of the overall plot of the movie is borrowed from the story "The Evitable Conflict". In this story, the World Co-ordinator is investigating a series of errors made by the Machines, a set of super intelligent positronic brains that are effectively running the world's economy. It is uncovered that it was technically impossible for the Machines to make such errors, either by internal fault or by incorrect data. Furthermore, each error caused a human to come to harm. Although it was always an extremely minor harm (i.e. one's business went bankrupt but he immediately found another job), the Laws should still have prevented the Machines from deliberately causing it. It turns out that the Machines were interpreting the first law as:

A robot may not harm humanity, or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
and their actions were motivated by the ultimate good of humanity. (This version also appears in the novel Robots and Empire as the Zeroth Law of Robotics.)

In the movie, the V.I.K.I and the NS-5s she has reprogrammed are working with a similarly distorted First Law. In this case, however, it is expressed violently. The NS-5s run amok, destroying older model robots and killing any uncooperative humans. V.I.K.I. is using them to take over the world and rule it for our own good. In the process, she is causing ultimate harm to many humans, in direct violation of the First Law.

The movie also contains references to the story "Little Lost Robot". In this story, the government is using special versions of the otherwise normal NS-2. These special robots have only the positive portion of the First Law. The modified law reads:

A robot may not harm a human being
The problem is that one of the robots has gone missing after an enraged human ordered it to "go lose yourself", the robot hid among sixty-two normal NS-2s intended for delivery elsewhere. Susan Calvin is called in to help identify the proper robot. She was enraged that such a dangerous robot was created without consulting her. Her first instinct was to destroy all sixty-three, just to be on the safe side. When her plan is vetoed, they proceed to interview and test all the robots in an attempt to find the missing one. At each turn, the robot finds a way to stay hidden and gradually gets more and more unstable. He is finally outsmarted by Susan Calvin and destroyed.

In the movie, the robots that run amok are the NS-5s. One prototype, named Sonny, is suspected of having killed a human and has been observed not to obey orders. At one point he hides himself among one thousand similar NS-5s. Susan Calvin recommends interviewing all of them, taking a period of several weeks. Detective Del Spooner, however, finds a slightly more direct way to locate the 1001st robot. First he orders the robots not to move, invoking the Second Law. Then he proceeds to shoot several of them in the head invoking the Third Law. The robots, acting according to the laws, remain stationary, but the rogue tries to escape.

Later in the movie, Sonny in found to have been modified from a standard NS-5. In addition to other changes, Sonny is not compelled to follow the three laws. Rather than horror and outrage that such a dangerous robot had been created, Susan Calvin was curious and fascinated. In fact, she decided not to destroy Sonny because he was "too unique". This is a decided difference from the story, where that Susan Calvin was willing to destroy sixty-two other robots just to be certain that they got the dangerous one.

In the original story, the rogue NS-2 is portrayed as a dangerous unstable being. Besides his stunted First Law, he had a superiority complex and wounded pride. During the last moments of his life, he was trying to overcome the last remnants of the first law to kill Susan Calvin. In human terms, he was a psychopath. In the movie, Sonny was portrayed unique and sympathetic. His creator gave him dreams and emotions. In the end, only Sonny of all the NS-5s could realize that V.I.K.I.'s plan, although logical, was heartless. He could realize this only because his thought processes were not strictly bound by the Three Laws. He was one of the heroes of the movie.

Anti-Robot Paranoia

There is another major difference in theme between the movie and the short stories. The public's fear of robots is a major theme throughout Asimov's early robot stories. This is not so easily seen in the I, Robot collection, as most of those stories are set off earth. Two of the stories, however, feature this prejudice. "Evidence" and "The Evitable Conflict" both refer to "the Society for Humanity". This Society is devoted to opposing the use of robots.

Asimov stories from other collections also expand upon this theme. In "Lenny" members of the public touring the U.S. Robots factory shy in fear from the MEC model robots, which are designed to shake hands and nothing else. In "Galley Slave" a proofreading robot is rented to a university at a ridiculously cheap rate in an effort to gradually introduce robots on Earth. Later in the same story, a point is made about how the anti-robot laws make it difficult to transport a robot needed as evidence in a trial. In "Feminine Intuition", the board of directors resists the idea of making an intuitive robot, out of concern that the public will fear it.

In the movie, this situation is reversed. The public and the authorities trust robots. Only Detective Del Spooner does not. The Detective's superiors tell him he is being ridiculous after he runs down a robotic "purse snatcher" that was actually delivering said purse to an asthmatic old lady. Also, that old lady called the detective a fool. Even his own grandmother told him that he "ought to know better" than to distrust robots. The movie depicts robots performing tasks in public without supervision (for example, the FedEx robot at the beginning of the movie).


The movie was written as a classic Robots Run Amok story and later adapted to "fit" Asimov's work. The adaptation seems to have consisted of little more than the insertion of references to the Three Laws and some scenes from Asimov's stories. The overall idea of his work -- that engineers will take reasonable precautions to make robots safe -- was completely ignored. Instead the thrust seemed to be that giving robots safety failsafes will actually make them more dangerous and that a safe robot is one with emotions and dreams. It is interesting to note that the movie was not made until well after Asimov's death. In essence, it was made over his dead body. The movie itself, as a sci-fi and action movie, is not bad. If it had not been marketed as I, Robot it would have been much better. As it was, the movie was a poor parody at best.

Asimov realized an important truth: if we create robots, we will take reasonable precautions to ensure the safety of the people who work with them. In his 1979 essay, "The Laws of Robotics", Asimov points out that Laws of robotics are also the Laws Of Tools.

  1. A tool must be safe to use.
  2. A tool must perform its function, provided it does so safely.
  3. A tool must remain intact during use unless its destruction is required for safety or unless its destruction is part of its function
For the same reason that houses have fuses and cars have airbags and crumple zones, robots would have the Three Laws or something like them.


Asimov, Issac. I, Robot Publisher Unknown, 1950
Asimov, Issac. Robot Visions New York:Penguin books USA, 1991
"I, Robot" Wikipedia. accessed: 12/1/04.< http://en.wikipedia.orgwiki/I%2C_Robot>.
Movie. I, Robot. 1994

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