Preparation and Study Questions for Cory Doctorow's "I, Robot" (2005)
Doctorow's story was first published at the web site, Infinite Matrix, and is still available there despite the fact that Eileen Gunn has stopped managing the site. Click on the story's title in our syllabus if you prefer to read the story on-line. Of course, Infinite Matrix, as I announced previously in the course, continues to offer quality SF as well as essays by SF writers and essays and reviews by critics, and is a rich resource for those interested in SF generally.
Doctorow's story both extends the tradition of humanoid androids that we have been considering through, among other things, the notion of the posthuman or transhuman, and responds to Isaac Asimov's three laws of robotics, which have dominated the portrayals of robots in SF since the early 1940s. Asimov, of course, was himself countering those technology-as-threat science fictions that had frequently posed humanoid robots as a threat to humanity. Most argue that this notion of the threatening robot began with R.U.R. [Rossum's Universal Robots], Karel Capek's 1921 science fiction play, which is credited with inventing the term, "robot." In Capek's Czechoslovakian, "robota" means "slave" and the application of the term, "robot," to Capek's artificial beings was credited by the author to his brother, Josef. If you are interested in the play, it is available in a very inexpensive Dover Thrift Edition.
Asimov responded to the spate of threatening robot stories by creating his Three Laws of Robotics and the positronic brain as guarantees that robots would obey human orders and be unable to harm humans. Doctorow's story responds to this continuing tradition in SF in part by reversing the polarity and ironically showing how the three laws can in fact become a liability. Of course, by allowing Social Harmony to create lawless robots to be used essentially as totalitarian secret police and contrasting the Social harmony creations to those of Eurasia, Doctorow shift the frame back from technology itself as threatening to the uses to which humans put technology as posing the true threat.
Here are Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics, which should help you to follow some of the issues in the story: