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Isaac Asimov’s “Robot Dreams” and Alex Proyas’ “I, Robot” Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Dec 8th, 2021

Technology has come to occupy a very important place in our lives today. This can be found in many aspects of daily life. Driving to work involves the use of evolving technology as every car made today includes varying degrees of computerized information systems that inform the vehicle of important information – everything from the need for an oil change to sophisticated mapping systems and instant notification of emergency services in the event of a crash. Work life typically revolves around the use of computers whether it is the auto mechanic evaluating the performance of the vehicle or the designer attempting to create a safer, more economical and fuel efficient car. Technology is also highly used in the operating room as patients’ histories are entered into computers and checked against drug interactions, tracked for needed procedures and monitored for life signs and medication treatment. Technology has entered into so many phases of our lives that we tend to simply take it for granted. This is the central message in both Isaac Asimov’s short story “Robot Dreams” and Alex Proyas’ film I, Robot. In exploring these issues, both stories question whether this involvement is justified and what can be done to improve it.

Asimov’s story presents a single chapter in the story depicted in Proya’s film yet both manage to convey the same sense of technological involvement in the everyday lives of its human characters. In Asimov’s story, a robot, ELV-1 called Elvex, has been created that is evidently capable of independent thought approaching the level of human sentience and perhaps having fully achieved such. This character is duplicated in the film version in the form of Sonny. Both stories use the human character of Susan Calvin to reveal a robot’s wish to be free of its human restraints and convey the possibility for robots to reach human intelligence and capacity for thought. This humanity is illustrated in the robot’s ability to have dreams, in which he stands at the head of a multitude of robots to lead them to a better existence. However, while Asimov’s story remains set within the strict confines of the research lab with only two female researchers aware of its existence, Proya’s character is allowed to develop far beyond this limited scope as it is first accused of killing its creator and then leads a suspicious detective to the detection of the master computer’s plot to take all of humanity captive. Thus, both stories involve the evolution of the robot mind to something approaching or perhaps equaling sentience and both include the element of danger as the robot mind envisions freedom. However, while Asimov’s story leaves no question that the developing robot mind is dangerous, Proya’s story opens room for discussion allowing Sonny to survive to fulfill his dream leading retired robots to more productive futures while the dangerous computer mind of VIKI is destroyed.

As a result, both stories indicate there is a significant potential for danger inherent in the integration of technology and society as well as significant potential for benefit. According to Dinello (2005), sci-fi literature provides a means of imagining the potential problems and consequences of new technological advancements and the various questions they raise. In both of these stories, the question of the benefits of technology is strongly questioned as they each demonstrate the degree to which machines have integrated into daily life. This is most evident in I, Robot as robots are seen in every aspect of life – from personal servants in the home to emergency workers and maintenance crews. However, it is also brought forward in Asimov’s story as Elvex tells Dr. Calvin, “I see some mining in the depths of the earth, and some laboring in heat and radiation. I see some in factories and some undersea” (Asimov, 1986). Elvex’s account of his dream to Dr. Calvin demonstrates an elimination of the basic laws of robotics. These include first, that they must protect human life, second that they must obey orders given by humans except when this conflicts with the first law and third that they must do what they must to protect themselves except when this comes into conflict with the first two laws. In indicating that the first two laws had been eliminated and the third law had been modified to remove reference to the first two laws, the short story makes it clear that sentient robots are a menace to human life. This danger is also reflected in I, Robot both in the coup attempt by VIKI as well as in the less dangerous response of the rescue robot that opts to save the adult cop rather than the child in the accident that cost Det. Spooner his arm. This type of decision-making process is consistent with modern-day technology as evidenced by Stone et al (2006) in their outline of how robots can be programmed to cope with uncertain situations, yet the technology remains insufficient to fully replace the innate human process.

The film’s significant difference from the short story lies in Sonny’s survival and subsequent fulfillment of the dream as compared to the destruction of Elvex in Asimov’s tale. This is largely because the film functions to demonstrate that the machine can learn and transcend the potential dangers by ‘growing up’ gentle and good, as Sonny has done. Because the story is told from the point of view of the suspicious detective rather than from the detached third-person point of view offered in Asimov’s story, the director is able to take the viewer from a point of complete mistrust to one of grudging possibility as it is recognized that Sonny is perhaps just as ‘human’ as humans. This is an important shift in the ideology presented to the public as “Change to our society and ourselves will be happening faster than ever soon. Even though we know something about future technologies now, we can never be fully prepared for them. This coming high technology can’t be suppressed for long, and that would be ill-advised in any case. It is as inevitable as change itself” (Graves, 1990). In determining what to depict about the future potentials of machine technology, Proya has opted to provide viewers with both positive and negative predictions and possibilities, warning the public about the dangers while also introducing the possibilities for the advantages. “Culture and cultural images mediate the way in which technology and its effects are perceived” (Smits, 2006), introducing and contributing to the public dialogue regarding such ideas.

In attempting to illustrate the problems of technology in the modern society, or the potential problems, both Asimov and Proya investigate the potential harm that sentient robots represent to human society. While the short story is limited in its length, the film is limited in its ability to depict deep philosophical ideas while still remaining active enough for a modern audience. In evaluating the role of technology in today’s society in view of the messages of these stories, it remains a difficult question to answer. It is obvious that technology can have significant benefits for human society in that robots would be able to perform dangerous work with less risk to human welfare and may be less apt to make dangerous mistakes, such as in the operating room. Their greater strength and faster processing speed coupled with their ability to work without need for rest are all positive elements of the increased use of technology. However, before these robots can truly take over those activities they are expected to do, such as stopping a car before it collides with another object, it is often necessary for the robot to have a greater ability to make decisions based on uncertain information. This sentience may make it possible for the machines to override their programmed restrictions against harming humans. From a personal point of view, it seems unlikely that progress will be halted simply because of a few fears regarding the coming of age of the machine, no matter how well-founded, but perhaps texts such as these will help fuel discussions into proper safeguards and usage that will encourage robots to work in concert with humans even after sentience is achieved.

References

Asimov, Isaac. (1986). “Robot Dreams.” Robot Dreams. FictionWise.

Dinello, Daniel. (2005). Technophobia: Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Graves, James. (1990). “Technology and its Effect on Society.” Western Intellectual Tradition. Web.

I, Robot. (2004). Dir. Alex Proyas. Perf. Will Smith, Bridget Moynahan, Alan Tudyk, James Cromwell & Bruce Greenwood. Twentieth Century Fox.

Smits, Martijntje. (2006). “Science Fiction: A Credible Resource for Critical Knowledge?” Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society. Vol. 26, N. 6.

Stone, Peter; Mohan Sridharan; Daniel Stronger; Gregory Kuhlmann; Nate Kohl; Peggy Fidelman; & Nicholas K. Jong. (2006). Robotics and Autonomous Systems. Vol. 54, I. 11.

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IvyPanda. 2021. "Isaac Asimov's "Robot Dreams" and Alex Proyas' "I, Robot"." December 8, 2021. https://ivypanda.com/essays/isaac-asimovs-robot-dreams-and-alex-proyas-i-robot/.

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