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July 24, 2004

I, Robot

WARNING: The following entry contains spoilers for the 2004 movie, I, Robot. You should not read it if you haven't seen the movie and don't want to have the plot revealed.

I recently saw the movie I, Robot, based on Isaac Asimov's book.

The various reviews I have seen criticize the movie's lack of faithfulness to the Asimov universe, in particular, the Three Laws of Robotics. I agree that the movie is strongly biased towards action, and the plot has little to do with any particular Asimov story (other than one sequence which is reminiscent of the story "Little Lost Robot"). But I think the criticism based on the Laws of Robotics is unwarranted, as it fails to take into account a later creation of Asimov, the Zeroth Law.

In Robots and Empire, Asimov had one of his characters derive the "Zeroth Law of Robotics": A robot must not allow humanity, through action or inaction, to come to harm. The Zeroth Law was an extrapolation from the First Law, which states that a robot cannot harm a human.

The robots in the movie I, Robot blithely attack Will Smith throughout, in apparent violation of the First Law (and frankly this is pretty much to be expected in a Hollywood action movie). But unlike the 1999 movie Bicentennial Man, where the Three Laws showed up for a cameo and were never mentioned again, in I, Robot the Three Laws are referred to throughout the movie, and the movie explains the reason for their violation, which is to uphold the Zeroth Law. Like all of Asimov's robot stories, the crux of the conflict lies in differing interpretations of the Three Laws + the Zeroth Law: how can a robot truly determine if one action causes less harm to humanity than another? This underlying conflict is also seen in the near-death experience of Will Smith's character, who was saved by a robot that had to make the same choice in preserving the First Law: if a robot can't keep all humans from coming to harm, which action will result in the least harm?

Yes, as a long-time Asimov fan I certainly would prefer a more faithful adaptation of his work. But surprisingly enough for a Hollywood blockbuster, I, Robot kept the same heart as all of Asimov's robot stories. The Three Laws in theory make all robot actions logical, but in practice, like all laws, it depends on the logic behind their interpretation.

Posted by Isaac at July 24, 2004 11:16 AM