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Parasha: I Robot: November 9th reading

Comments on the previous entry were along the lines of no separate spoilers entry needed, since the short stories are stand-alone enough. So unless I'm otherwise requested, I'll just keep to one post, and ask people to remember to not be all spoily-pants about future short stories.

In which two men, Powell and Donovan, get shipped off to Mercury with their robot Speedy to re-start some mining expedition up there, and the problems that occur.

We only got a little bit of mention of the Rules of Robotics in the previous story, mostly the First Rule, against robots hurting humans. This story really drags those rules into the spotlight though, as not only are they handily infodumped on us (well, but it's done in a pretty non-clumsy way at least), but they also come heavily into the solution of the problem. And it's pretty well-done really. Of course, I thought the solution was a bit obvious, but I HAVE read the stories before even though it's been a while, so I might have just been remembering that much.

Again it's jarring reading it from our own perspective - this is our very near future, and there are odd mix-ups, such as manned long-term missions on other planets, and humanly intelligent (or nearso) robots being commonplace and *old*, yet they still have communication problems (although I guess maaaybe there could be real sciency reasons for it, it just seems a lot more handwavy to our own culture than I suspect Asimov intended).

I also wish we had a bit more info on the actual problem! That's one of the main flaws with the story for me - I realize this is supposed to be all science fiction, and a lot of it not quite nailed down, but it's a lot harder to feel a sense of urgency for getting the selenium when the consequences for not getting it aren't really spelled out - we just know that they need it for some such-and-such cells. Gah, the whole "we can't really wait! We need that selenium!" bits were really annoying, because I wanted to know "well, WHY?"

The other flaw for me was that the characters are again a bit one-or-two-note. Which at least makes the Harridan stereotyping of the first hausfrau a little less grating, since other characters are fairly stereotypical too - we have Powell, the Calm Collected Smart guy, and Donovan, the more brash and not as bright second. That's... pretty much it, although Donovan at least does come up with some good ideas.

It is interesting also though to see Asimov exploring some of the consequences of human-like robots, and humanity's reaction to them, such as the whole shift to a "slave mentality" for a while. That at least makes the world seem a bit more fleshed out, although I still can't quite get past the problems of culture shock and somewhat flat characterization to really get immersed in it.

As requested, here's a reminder link of the book schedule.


Nov. 9th, 2009 07:57 pm (UTC)
Which raises the question of why they didn't just say, "You, robot, if you don't fetch us some selenium, us fragile humans will roast to death, so the First Law says get our bloody selenium!"

As stormfeather said, that's exactly what triggers the problem--or, more specifically, the fact that they didn't think they needed to.

They thought Speedy would just get the selenium when they told him to, not realizing that he was a bit more risk-averse and a bit less command-following than average. If they had realized that, and made clear that not getting the selenium would lead to their deaths, he'd have done it without issue. As it was, he was literally walking the line where going any further would potentially harm himself, and going back would violate the order.

As to why Speedy didn't figure it out, yeah, we get a lot of indications that robots aren't really capable of abstract thought and following through to consequences. Or, which we start to see in later stories, they are capable, but don't always do it. ("Little Lost Robot" springs to mind.)
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Nov. 11th, 2009 06:31 am (UTC)
I got the sense in this one that Asimov's robots get to react but not plan -- the neural nets inside positronic brains can assess abstract situations, but not make a chain of inferences. At least, not when it's required by the plot? I'll be keeping an eye out to see if this keeps coming up.
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Nov. 11th, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC)
Yeah, this is what I'd pretty much come up with. Especially given how sure humanity is about these Three Laws (and basically not having already had a ton of Messy Incidents where the First Law didn't protect people as it should), there has to be some ability for the robots to figure out the consequences of its (in)action.

Especially if they're going to be programmed to also obey humans unquestioningly, which could lead to some devious set-ups by malicious-minded (or just plain insane) humans.