Much of Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot is concerned with what almost seem logic puzzles, stories where the complications of the three laws of robotics cause robots to malfunction or otherwise act in ways not originally intended. However, the first full chapter of the book, titled “Robbie”, breaks this mold. It is instead a story humanizing a robot, focusing on the relationship between a young girl and her caretaker robot. Asimov specifically uses this chapter to blur the lines between the readers understanding of human and machine, which then further sets the stage for our understanding of robotics for the rest of the text.
Robbie, the name of a caretaker robot, is a sort of anomaly within the book. Being such an early model of robot, he cannot speak, and thus we cannot know his thoughts directly. We can only really judge him on his actions, and Asimov portrays him extremely sympathetically. Robbie seems to go above and beyond his initial role as caretaker, developing a genuine affection for Gloria, his ward, who reciprocates that affection one hundred percent. He does his job, it seems, perfectly. This stands in stark contrast to most of the other robots shown in the book. For instance, the next four chapters alone all involve situations where a robot malfunctions due to a complication with their understanding of the three laws of robotics. Robbie, in contrast, functions properly. Or at the worst, he excels beyond the level he was supposed to operate at, which would technically be an error.
By beginning a series of stories about robots malfunctioning with a story about a robot like Robbie, Asimov accomplishes a few key things. First and most obviously, he gives us a starting point, showing us what is, for all intents and purposes, a primitive robot. We can better appreciate the complications and problems of the robots in the following stories having seen where they developed from. Robbie becomes a sort of baseline, he has the positronic brain and is clearly intelligent, but still is a bit clumsy and can’t speak.
More importantly is how Asimov uses Robbie thematically. The relationship between Robbie and Gloria has clear and obvious depth. Gloria loves Robbie unconditionally, it seems. His status as a robot means little to her and she treats him like a friend. Take, for instance, this exchange between Gloria and her mother when Robbie is taken away,
“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, fiercely and ungrammatically. “He was a person just like you and me and he was my friend. I want him back. Oh, Mamma, I want him back.” (Asimov 1991, 14)
As for Robbie, well its harder to know how he feels. Certainly he is designed to care for Gloria. Yet from the readers perspective there seems to be something greater there than programming. The small detail of Robbie liking stories, especially Cinderella, hints at something deeper going on in his mind. It certainly seems, from our human perspective, that Robbie loves Gloria the same way she loves him.
Through this relationship, Asimov humanizes Robbie, the first robot we come to know in the book. This shapes the reader’s understanding of robots throughout. It adds, for instance, an extra touch of tragedy to the case of the robot Herbie in the chapter “Liar!”, who lies to humans in order to not hurt them emotionally. Yet at the same time, Asimov takes care not to treat Robbie as a human. He may be shown to have what could be considered human qualities, but he still can’t speak. Mrs. Weston, Gloria’s mother, despises him, and seems to consider him little more than a dog, which they eventually replace him with, which quite literally dehumanizes him. And we can never be sure how much of his affection for Gloria is programmed in to his behavior, and how much is, for lack of a better term, organic.
And so, as a blueprint for all of his robots to follow, Asimov humanizes Robbie, while still keeping him separate from humanity. Robbie is human like, but he is not human. We see aspects of humanity in him, and he is sympathetic, but we do not know for certain where those aspects originate. Yet clearly there is something deeper there. The fact that Robbie has been absent-mindedly referred to as “he” this whole essay instead of “it” proves that.
Asimov, Issac. 1991. I Robot. New York: Bantam Dell.