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The Caves of Steel (Isaac Asimov, 1953): Every robot issue that ever will be always has been

Recommendation: Pick up a copy of The Caves of Steel and enjoy a true classic.

In 1953, Isaac Asimov spun an odd couple story about a human and robot detective team in an over-populated future where humans on earth lived like naked mole rats, packed into cities. The robot was R. Daneel Olivaw, possibly the most important robot character created by Asimov. R. Daneel would be featured in three sequels and later unite Asimov's Robots series and with his Empire series (in the book Robots and Empire, go figure). Robot developers created the 3 Laws of Robotics, but R. Daneel created the Zeroth Law of Robotics.: A robot may not harm humanity, or through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm

The Caves of Steel sounds like a historical oddity, a chance to read what the Good Doctor was thinking as he moved from robot short stories to long form, or a bit of back story for the Foundation and Empire series. But that would be wrong. The Caves of Steel is a stand-alone classic and perhaps one of the few novels to address a wealth of real issues in robotics that persist to this day. There’s a theme of resentment towards robots and job displacement. There are jabs at the literal mindedness of the inferior robots built on Earth versus the advanced models built by the Spacer colonies. The Uncanny Valley shows up as a trope, though not by name. Whether evidence from a robot is legally admissible, or whether it should be, is a key plot point. About the only thing missing is human-robot sex but no worries, Asimov will get to that in the sequels. Oh, there’s no robot uprising, but that’s pure Asimov and his unrelenting positive view that robots and humans can, and should, work together.

But The Caves of Steel isn’t a fictionalized social studies lecture on "can we all get along”-- Asimov goes for the hard science. There’s a well-reasoned argument on morphology- the old debate over form versus function-- and why the humanoid form is desirable as the most adaptable for the money. Good software engineering principles also get exposure in a discussion of how the 3 Laws of Robotics, especially the First Law, is implemented and why it can’t be overwritten. And in the end, Herb Simon’s pivotal concept of bounded rationality is the unspoken smoking gun.

Of course The Caves of Steel can’t totally transcend its time and place. The views of marriage and gender roles from the 50s are windows into why the divorce rate skyrocketed in the 60s and 70s. The human protagonist, Lije Bailey, comes off as smarter but not all that much nicer than Sam Rockwell’s character in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. Thank goodness, things have changed.

But the essential ideas about robots, and the science behind the robots, hasn’t changed. So pick up a copy of The Caves of Steel and enjoy the future robots of a bygone past.

- Robin

For a video version of this review, click below...

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