Robot Visions – Isaac Asimov
The Robot Chronicles
What is a robot? We might define it most briefly and comprehensively as “an
Artificial object that resembles a human being.”
When we think of resemblance, we think of it, first, in terms of appearance. A
Robot looks like a human being.
It could, for instance, be covered with a soft material that resembles human
Skin. It could have hair, and eyes, and a voice, and all the features and
Appurtenances of a human being, so that it would, as far as outward appearance
Is concerned, be indistinguishable from a human being.
This, however, is not really essential. In fact, the robot, as it appears in
Science fiction, is almost always constructed of metal, and has only a stylized
Resemblance to a human being.
Suppose, then, we forget about appearance and consider only what it can do. We
Think of robots as capable
of performing tasks more rapidly or more efficiently
Than human beings. But in that case any machine is a robot. A sewing machine can
Sew faster than a human being, a pneumatic drill can penetrate a hard surface
Faster than an unaided human being can, a television set can detect and organize
Radio waves as we cannot, and so on.
We must apply the term robot, then, to a machine that is more specialized than
An ordinary device. A robot is a computerized machine that is capable of
Performing tasks of a kind that are too complex for any living mind other than
That of a man, and of a kind that no non-computerized machine is capable of
In other words to put it as briefly as possible:
Robot = machine + computer
Clearly, then, a true robot was impossible before the invention of the computer
In the 1940s, and was not practical (in the sense of being compact enough and
Cheap enough to be put to everyday use) until the invention of the microchip in
Nevertheless, the concept of the robot-an artificial device that mimics the
Actions and, possibly, the appearance of a human being-is old, probably as old
As the human imagination.
The ancients, lacking computers, had to think of some other way of instilling
Quasi-human abilities into artificial objects, and they made use of vague
Supernatural forces and depended on god-like abilities beyond the reach of mere
Thus, in the eighteenth book of Homer’s Iliad, Hephaistos, the Greek god of the
Forge, is described as having for helpers, “a couple of maids…made of gold
Exactly like living girls; they have sense in their heads, they can speak and
Use their muscles, they can spin and weave and do their work….” Surely, these
Again, the island of Crete, at the time of its greatest power, was supposed to
Possess a bronze giant named Talos that ceaselessly patrolled its shores to
Fight off the approach of any enemy.
Throughout ancient and medieval times, learned men were supposed to have created
Artificially living things through the secret arts they had learned or
Uncovered – arts by which they made use of the powers of the divine or the
The medieval robot-story that is most familiar to us today is that of Rabbi Loew
Of sixteenth-century Prague. He is supposed to have formed an artificial human
Being – a robot – out of clay, just as God had formed Adam out of clay. A clay
Object, however much it might resemble a human being, is “an unformed substance”
(the Hebrew word for it is “golem”), since it lacks the attributes of life.