Asimov: “Robot Dreams” vs. I, Robot

“Robot Dreams” vs. I, Robot

In Isaac Asimov’s “Robot Dreams,” we see a robot that was created using a new method. Because of this new method, it was questioned quite extensively. In particular, the robot mentioned that it dreamed. Being something robots were not known or meant to do, the scientists questioned the robot extensively.

The robot dreamed of a field of robots, all toiling and doing the labor they were programmed to do. In the dream, the robot sees one man. As the dream continues, it is revealed that this is not a man at all, but the robot. He is leading his “people” to freedom. The robot also is able to ignore the first two laws of robotics and focus on the third. The end result is that the robot has gained self-awareness. The scientists shoot him with an electronic gun of some sort that scrambles his positronic brain.

The film “I, Robot” sees some of this plot, but expands it greatly. In the film, Will Smith plays a police officer who hates robots. In his past, a robot was able to save him from an accident, but not a little girl. By using logic, the robot went for the person who was most likely to survive. A human may have made a different choice, going for the little girl. Since the robot acted in this manner, Will Smith’s character hated robots.

This movie also contained the dream scene, but the idea of the man who turned out to be the robot was addressed and dismissed. Later on, when it turned out to be the robot after all, the feeling was different. Rather than this being a bad thing, this was portrayed as something good, as Sonny had learned to be “good.”

The difference between the two stories lies in the level of fear. In “Robot Dreams,” the scientists all know full well that there is the potential for robots to rise up and replace humanity. In I, Robot, this fear is gone. The only one who distrusts robots is the detective.

Rather than the robot being the one who learned to ignore the first two laws, it was VIKI, the central robotic hub of the movie. In this version of the story, she follows the first law, but is able to interpret it. She won’t harm humanity, but she won’t allow humanity to harm itself. So she will kill in order to stop the killing. She sees this as logical, though there is some fallacy to this logic. Perhaps one of the laws of robotics should cover not denying a human his free will unless it violates the first law.

We should also look closely at the evolution of free will in robots. In the short story, it’s almost an accident to have free will. Yes, a new design equaled new possibilities. Yet the robot evolved on its own. It wasn’t programmed to dream. In the movie, it was purposefully made to ignore the laws of robotics. This was no accident of evolution. Dreaming came about because of that, but the dream was almost by design to lead the detective to where he needed to be. Only at the end did the prophetic aspect of it come about.

Personally, I think the movie suffered for going this route. While the same basic plotline was followed, the plot suffered by not having a natural evolution. The “ghost in the machine” was eluded to, but it was never said how that caused the robot to evolve.

The setting of I, Robot was also different in that it was near-future, 31 years after the movie release date. I felt this was a bit ambitious on the part of the writer and director of the movie. The odds of us having robots, especially ones that ingrained in our society, by the span of a generation are slim. Rather, I would have given it about a hundred years or more.

The point of view also differed. In “Robot Dreams,” the point of view is that of the robot. In I, Robot, the point of view is that of the detective. While this made for a decent story, I found the movie version to be all-too-predictable. Our hero hates robots. Therefore, robots must go bad and he saves humanity from its own folly.

Personally, I find it more interesting when the protagonist is the robot. This allows for a certain alien mentality. It also raises the question of whether destroying a free-willed robot is moral or not. After all, if a robot is alive, would destroying a robot then be murder? The movie simply removes a threat from humanity. The book causes one to think about the morality of the actions.

Critique of Technology

Both the short story and the movie look at the impact of technology upon humanity. They both question whether humanity’s own creations will turn upon them. In the short story, we see how the robots will eventually rise up and supplant humanity. In the movie, the robots essentially enslave humanity “for its own protection.” This is a subtle difference. At the end of the movie, we see a return to the short story, though you don’t get the feeling that robots will supplant humanity. Rather, you feel that they might co-exist.

Each story has its own limits on what it can tell. Short stories can go more in-depth into character. Movies can be more visual, while short stories force the reader to imagine the robots. In the short story, we go into depth into the robot character. However, our mind’s eye see him in a limited capacity. In the movie, we can see the robots in action. We can see the visual cues of Sonny’s facial expressions. While visually more attractive, the movie does not go into as much depth with characterization.

Role of Technology in Today’s Society

In today’s society, technology can do so many things for us. It allows us to communicate like never before. I’ve managed to contact old high school friends through Facebook, and have made new friendships through AIM. Yet at the same time, these friendships are not as personable as talking with friends in person.

Technology has allowed for newer and greater opportunities. New media is the latest craze, phasing old media out slowly but surely. Newspapers are dying as people gain their news online. Why buy a dead tree with day-old news when one can have instant gratification by going to an online news source?

At the same time, I have critiques of technology. Remember when we used to be able to go to the gas station and just start pumping gas? Now we must first enter in a credit card, punch in our PIN, then go on. It takes longer. Aren’t computers supposed to save us time?

A personal pet peeve of mine is phone automation systems. Sometimes, it’s a struggle to get through the maze of possibilities before you can talk to a real human being. Again, a time waster and something that is not only impersonal, but also detrimental to business. Why do business with a company that puts you through hell before you can even talk to someone?

Another pet peeve is when automated checkers replace human beings. Those are lost jobs.

While technology offers many possibilities, it seems that it doesn’t truly save us a significant portion of time. Sometimes, new possibilities equals too many possibilities.

Comments (14)

DragonhelmMarch 30th, 2009 at 12:35 am

Just so you know the context, this was a paper that I had to write for my science fiction class. I thought I would share it with you.

AnonMarch 30th, 2009 at 6:44 am

Font size and line spacing issues, guys!

DragonhelmMarch 30th, 2009 at 8:01 pm

Yeah, sorry, posted it late last night. Software didn’t like me.

PsalmMarch 30th, 2009 at 8:05 pm

I’ve seen ‘I, Robot’, I had to study it in year 10. But I’ve yet to read Aasimov’s “Robot Dreams”, so I can’t personally compare the two myself.

It’s a good article and I agree with your last statement. :)

DragonhelmMarch 30th, 2009 at 8:14 pm

Okay, fixed a couple of formatting issues and made some clarifications. Thanks to Keith Curtis for the help on this one.

ThoughtsMarch 31st, 2009 at 7:03 am

If automated checkers is a bad thing because it “Costs jobs”, are not farm equipment and horses bad things because they “cost jobs” of people dragging the plow around themselves?

If you don’t need someone to do a job, they shouldn’t be doing it. If we get to a point where we don’t have jobs that people need to do..why would that be a bad thing? Isn’t that the point?

Get to a point in time where people can live in a federation like existence where you can be as productive or lazy as you see fit because replicators and holodecks make everything you need or want?

sbonnerMarch 31st, 2009 at 10:03 pm

to Thoughts,

A great little book that looks directly into what you describe is Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut – his first novel. And, no, no matter how optimistic the prediction, Utopia is not just around the corner. That being said, I do not weep for the saddle makers and scriveners. Change or … don’t.

StephenApril 1st, 2009 at 8:35 am

I have to agree about the “saving of jobs.” Technologies job is not to save jobs, but to leverage human potential. Typesetters were completely replaced, in very short order, by new electronic typesetting machines. Guess what? Now publishing is available to an enormous range of individuals, groups, and companies where it wasn’t before.

Even though technology is often sold as “saving you time” … the truth is, it doesn’t. It leverages your time. You can either use it to free up more time for watching TV or you can get an enormous amount done in the time you have – choice is yours. The fact that any one human is capable of now doing so much, communicating with so many, producing goods and services and distributing them … all while living in a comfortable house and raising a family … that’s the miracle.

Those that praise the humble dignity of hard, manual labor are probably doing so from their air conditioned offices while typing on their computers and sipping their insta-brewed coffee. Everything looks better at a distance.

MyrddynApril 2nd, 2009 at 11:03 am

I won’t claim to be an expert, but when I watched the movie, it seemed to not purely pull from Robot Dreams, but from Caves of Steel (first book of the robot series) and a bit from (if I recall correctly) Prelude to Foundation ( from the foundation series). The elements pulled seem small, but it may assist in knowing why the differences. If you’ve not read the series, I recommend them both, read robot first, and Foundations second; while it’s like 12+ books in total, there’s a chronology between them.

DragonhelmApril 3rd, 2009 at 11:47 pm

Thoughts – Thing is, someone is still doing the job. Save that now instead of an employee, it’s you. What of customer service? What of the days when a guy at the service station would fill your gas and wash your windows on your car, or when a guy at the grocery store would carry your groceries to your car? Those days are gone, because the corporations know that the work has to get done anyway, and if they don’t provide the person, you’re forced to do the labor yourself. By going this route with self-checkout, the repercussion is not only in lost jobs, but in Wal-mart/etc. losing its “face” and the personal touch with customers. I also submit that machines are not always better than people.

As for pulling the plow, I seriously doubt that was ever a paying job. ;-) People have always used tools, including laboring animals. They make work easier. Tools have been traded up, from horse to tractor. On a farm, though, if you no longer pulled the plow, you were doing other work, whether hauling hay, feeding the animals, cutting wood, or whatever. There’s always work on a farm, so that’s just movement. Since that tends to be a family affair and not an employer/employee affair, at least in this sort of situation, then we’re not talking about anybody losing a job.

MagApril 4th, 2009 at 10:15 am

Here in Oregon we are prohibited from pumping our own gas. While I see your point about losing the personal touch with the customers, in this case it is an artificial way to create unnecessary jobs at the expense of speed, cost and efficiency. When I lived in Arizona, the only hindrance was that all the pumps could be taken. Now, with this government enforced restriction on self-service, I can waste ten to fifteen minutes waiting for someone to come back from their smoke break just so I can spend more money on gas to cover their wages.

I actually wish that more of my job was automated. I spend eight hours a day throwing stacks of paper into a hydraulic guillotine, cutting it down, and then cutting and folding the paper after it has been printed on. We do have some sophisticated presses and bindery equipment, but the cutting and folding machines are pretty low tech. My job is essentially the bottleneck of the shop, since I have to handle all the jobs two to four times. On Thursday I was sweeping the shop for twenty minutes, just trying to hit the seven hour mark. On Friday I walked in and was now two days behind, simply because I can’t cut down and fold fifty thousand booklets as fast as they can be printed.

I don’t mind self-service, or bagging my own groceries if it means I don’t have to wait in line for twenty minutes because the people ahead of me want to complain or gossip with the cashier. Or, worse yet, they pull out a sack full of coupons and dump change down to pay for their purchase. Of course, I have an autistic three year son that goes with me almost everywhere, so it may be that my impatience has more to do with not wanting a meltdown from all the fluorescent lights and the crowds and the noise…

MarshallApril 4th, 2009 at 8:48 pm

My only problem with automated phone systems is when they don’t have the option I need; and that’s a design problem (caused by humans). Self-check out saves time and gets rid of annoying, incompetant checkers.

And I’ve been at a station where you pump before you pay. That’s creepy and, quite frankly, it’s bad business. :)

WarrenJanuary 30th, 2010 at 11:36 pm

Hi, I have a similar paper to write about for my Sci Fi class, and I haven’t met the 4 page requirement. I have made several of the points that you have made, but there are some points that you mentioned that I did not think about. I was wondering if you would mind if I used some of what you said. I will not copy it word for word, and I will cite you for it.

Doctor XJune 23rd, 2010 at 11:40 am

Hello–you have a fascinating comparison between the film and the story here–excellent observations!

If you ever have a minute, you might want to check out Colossus: The Forbin Project; it’s an old sf film about a supercomputer taking over the world pretty much for the same reasons that VICKY gives

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