• The First Law of Robotics: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

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  • The Second Law of Robotics: A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

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  • The Third Law of Robotics: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

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With those words, science-fiction author Isaac Asimov changed how the world saw robots. Where they had largely been Frankenstein-esque, metal monsters in the pulp magazines, Asimov saw the potential for robotics as more domestic: as a labor saving device; the ultimate worker. In doing so, he continued a literary tradition of speculative tales: What happens when humanity remakes itself in its image?

Isaac Asimov was born in 1920 in Petrovichi, Russia, and immigrated to the United States just two years later, where the family settled in Brooklyn, New York. There, his father worked odd jobs, until he eventually purchased a candy shop. The store stocked a wide range of pulp magazines, and he was allowed to read the science fiction ones, on the belief that they were about science, and therefore, educational. Asimov was smitten with the stories he read, and yearned to write his own. With the purchase of a typewriter at the age of 15, he began to write. In 1938, he made the trip across the city to the Street & Smith offices in Manhattan and was ushered into Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell Jr.’s office, where he presented his first story. Campbell promised to read the story, and eventually rejected it. He eventually sold his first story to Amazing Stories, Marooned of Vesta. It would be the start of a long literary career. 

Among Asimov’s best known stories are the ones about his Positronic robots, a connected group of stories that would change how science fiction viewed robots. Robots had a long literary tradition: Asimov himself noted that Homer described humanoid automatons in his epic poems, that Renaissance inventors created elaborate clockwork machines, and even works such as Mary Shelley's Frankenstein drew upon a common inspiration, which humans frequently attempted to create in their own image. The word "robot" itself wasn’t created until 1921, when a Czech play, R.U.R., which stood for Rossum’s Universal Robots, was first performed. The word came from robota, which translates to "forced labor."

Asimov’s first robot story was Strange Playfellows, which appeared in the September 1940 issue of Frederik Pohl’s Super Science Stories. Frustrated with the portrayal of robots in science fiction as evil, mindless villains, he set about writing a more sympathetic tale. The end result, later retitled “Robbie,” was about a young girl, Gloria and her family’s robot, Robbie. Worried by their daughter's close attachment to Robbie, her parents sent the robot away into a nearby city. Gloria was distraught over the loss of her friend, but during a trip into the city, she caught sight of the robot, and ran to him. After Robbie saved Gloria from certain harm, the pair was reunited.

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Rereading Strange Playfellows following its publication, Asimov found that he greatly enjoyed writing about robots and set about writing another. His next robot story, “Reason,” appeared in the April 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. However, it was Asimov’s third robot story that made the greatest impact: It introduced the Three Laws of Robotics, a set of rules that would govern robotic behavior. The idea of the rules came not from Asimov, but from John Campbell, when Asimov pitched the idea of a telepathic robot in December 1940. The pair discussed the various ramifications of such a device, and Campbell described the rules that the robots would have to follow: They couldn’t hurt a person, they had to obey orders and they had to protect themselves—seeds that Asimov had planted in his prior two stories already. He soon set about writing, referencing the First Law for the first time in the story “Liar!,” which appeared in the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. There, he introduced his robopsychologist Susan Calvin to throw a mind-reading robot through a logical loop and expose the First Law. In March 1942, Asimov published his fifth robot story, “Runaround,” which outlined each of the three laws for the first time. Other stories followed: “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray,” “Catch That Rabbit,” “Escape!,” “Evidence,” “Little Lost Robot,” “Mother Earth” and “The Evitable Conflict,” most of which appeared in Astounding.I, Robot cover

In 1950, Asimov collected a number of his robot stories and published them as a single collection titled I, Robot. The nine stories (“Robbie,” “Runaround,” “Reason,” “Catch that Rabbit,” “Liar!,” “Little Lost Robot,” “Escape!,” “Evidence” and “The Evitable Conflict”) were reworked into a sort of recollection of Susan Calvin’s life. In some instances, Asimov retroactively inserted the scientist into earlier stories, and established a continuity across the length of the stories.

Asimov wasn’t done with his robot stories following the publication of I, Robot; while other short stories appeared over the next couple of years, his next major step was a robot novel. First serialized in Galaxy Magazine’s October 1953 issue and later published by Doubleday in June 1954, The Caves of Steel was a blend of both science fiction and mystery genres, following detective Elijah Baley after he was partnered with robotic detective R. Daneel Olivaw as they solve the murder of a prominent spacer, an outer-world settler. The book packs a powerful message on human societies as the two vastly different detectives come together: one from the overcrowded, indoor New York City, and the other from the colonial worlds. The book was a major success, and Asimov followed it up with a sequel story in 1956, “The Naked Sun,” serialized in Astounding Science Fiction and published in book form a year later. In 1976, he published a novelette, The Bicentennial Man, which earned him the Hugo and Nebula Awards; Asimov claimed that the story was one of his all-time favorites.

Asimov would take a break from science fiction, but eventually returned to his roots in the 1980s, writing a third detective novel, Robots of Dawn, published in 1983. Two years later, he linked his robot stories with his other well-known series, Foundation, with the novel Robots and Empire.

Asimov’s robot stories are remarkable for not only changing how science fiction readers viewed robotics, but also for how they serve as a type of ethical and logical commentary. In The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts notes that “with his robots Asimov created a race of sentient, thoughtful beings in whom the Kantian moral imperatives is internalized; robots do not consult their conscience when faced with an ethical dilemma, they obey the three laws that absolutely govern their behavior.” In many ways, his continues the long tradition of humanity making something in its own image, imbuing the beings with an ideal and logical set of parameters in which to operate.

While Asimov isn’t well-known for his prose or overly deep characters, his robot stories have withstood the test of time for their logical puzzles. Like the long history of stories before his own, he continued to look at how people would ultimately try and remake themselves in their own image, imposing a rigid set of morals on their creations that would ultimately break down in the face of human nature. In a world dominated by electronics, his stories remain highly relevant and interesting, but above all, entertaining.

Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He can be found online at his site and on Twitter @andrewliptak.