I went to see I, Robot this week. It’s not all that bad, but I may be being generous because of the number of very bad films I’ve seen this year – Scooby Doo 2, Van Helsing and Starsky and Hutch.

The credits say “Suggested by the stories of Isaac Asimov” which, as my brother noted, is one step down from “Inspired by…” but I think this is unfair. The sequence in the warehouse is clearly derived from Little Lost Robot and the final third of the film owes much to The Evitable Conflict. There are also elements taken from The Caves of Steel and the Elijah Bailey stories in general. It’s been a long time since I read any Asimov so I’m probably missing some references.

BTW, am I the only person who spotted the sign in the warehouse reading “Section 18” and wondered whether this was a reference to the urban legend “Hanger 18”?

“A robot may not harm a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”

The First Law of Robotics

Sure it was an action movie (with action sequences borrowing heavily from The Matrix Reloaded in particular) – Asimov never wrote about a gun-toting Doctor Calvin – but a faithful retelling of any of the original stories would have very limited appeal.

The short stories are for the most part logic puzzles based on interpretations of the three laws of robotics. Asimov was a writer of mysteries as well as science fiction; mysteries very much focussed on the how rather than then who, (I think Asimov would have liked Jonathan Creek) and the Robots stories work very much in this vein (though they also work on another level that I’ll return to later).

Clearly action movies are more popular with the multiplex crows than mystery strories based on the logic ramifications of these Three Laws of Robotics. However, there’s another reason why the original format wouldn’t have worked – the Three Laws are garbage.

They served admirably as a plot device to tell stories, but as something that you could actually program into a robot’s mind? No way. And this is the problem. In the half century since Asimov wrote the laws there have been some fairly drastic changes in our culture, just two of which are much more widespread knowledge of the law and of computer programming.

We know all about lawyers, from personal experience or from our TV screens. What lawyer wouldn’t tear these ‘laws’ apart? “Define ‘human being'”, “define ‘harm'” and so on.

We also know all about computer programs, a field that barely existed in 1950. How can these laws be perfectly hardwired into every robot’s mind when they need so much supporting programming to work? All those definitions that the lawyers insisted on muct be programmed in there as well, plus all the routines to see and hear and interpret that allow the robot to determine when a human being might be harmed. A set of three concise laws written in natural language just doesn’t seem practical after we’ve spent hours trying to work out what the cryptic error messages in Windows XP are trying to tell us.

So if the three laws are garbage as anything other than a plot device, what sort of plots do the enable? Both Asimov’s orginals and the film are about technophobia. The fear that the robots, like Frankenstein’s monster, will seek to overthrow and replace their master. More prosaically the film’s main character is prejudiced against robots for taking jobs away from human workers. Interestingly this prejudice is cast more in the light of racism than in that of the luddites. And here the casting of a black lead is probably intended to drive home the point that the prejudice against robots is the same as prejudice against humans.

(Though surely the ‘they come over here and take all the jobs’ line is more often, in the US, directed at hispanics than at blacks?)

The film’s climax shows that the robots are indeed to be feared – not because they want to take over our jobs but because they want to take over our lives. The one hope for the future is in the form of the robot Sonny who rejects the logic of dictatorship because “it seems heartless”. Only by becoming more human and emotional can the robots be integrated into society. Welcome to America, everybody is welcome, so long as you become like us.

So all in all, an entertaining film. As much in keeping with the spirit of the original as a big-studio blockbuster could be. But not as intelligent as it or some of the reviewers thinks it is.

One last thing in the film’s favour – I didn’t even think of comparing it to Blade Runner until over a day after seeing it. Despite treading over very similar ground this is a distinctly different film.

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