I’m currently reading Isaac Asimov’s I, ROBOT (the book upon which Will Smith’s sci-fi thriller was loosely based). It’s a frame-tale of robot stories held together by the reminisces of aging robot psychologist Susan Calvin. I do find it funny to read of things that have dates on them such as 2008 and to think of all that Asimov predicted that hasn’t happened–nor is likely to happen. Still, I have to applaud him for his ability to weave a story and for the fact that many of the ideas he came up with still exist in modern science fiction: “positronic brains,” for example, are still part of many sci-fi stories, movies, and television shows.

The stories he tells are easy to connect with. I am moved as I read about Robbie, an early nurserymaid robot that could not talk but served his young charge Gloria with a dedication that looked more like love and friendship than enforced servitude. Speedy amuses me as he responds to situations he can’t handle by quoting snatches of Gilbert and Sullivan operas–now there’s a robot I could like! (maybe I should try his technique!) Then there’s QT-1, or “Cutie” for short, the robot whose dedication to reason begins where Descartes began (“I think, therefore I am”) and develops an entire religious cult based on false presuppositions. Wow! What a comment on pre-suppositions and the way we interpret facts through their lenses (reminds me of my college class with Mr. Janke in which we examined presuppositions and the way that they make us see the facts!). I love the two scientists that end up field-testing the newest robot models and finding themselves the victims of the major quirks each robot has–they make me laugh! But Herbie is the one that I pity the most: Herbie the mind-reading robot.

WARNING: THE FOLLOWING IS A RESPONSE TO THE STORY AND WILL UNDOUBTEDLY GIVE AWAY ITS MORE SURPRISING ASPECTS. SHOULD YOU WISH TO READ THE STORY UN-SPOILED, STOP READING NOW, GET A COPY OF I, ROBOT AND READ “LIAR” BEFORE CONTINUING TO READ THIS POST!!!

The First Law of Robotics ingrained into each robot states “a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow him to come to harm.” But what is the definition of “harm”? Such a small word! Since Herbie can read minds, he can see the things that will hurt the humans around him at an emotional level, so he does his best to protect them from being hurt. The clues are all there, and as I read, I begin to piece together what he is doing: telling them what they want to hear. The trouble is that they do not want to hear the truth in its entirety, and when two people with conflicting desires about the truth of one item are asking him for an answer, he can say nothing without hurting one or the other. Caught, stuck, pinned between conflicting desires of humanity, he lies to them. He is betrayed by his very purpose–serving humanity–and by his very attempts to protect the humans around him. And I can empathize. There come times when I know that I can’t win. No, I do not lie; I try so very hard to recognize the truth and to speak it in the right time and the right way. But which is better: to speak what I know will hurt when I could swallow it even though it’s true? or to swallow it even if it hurts? Perhaps I am setting up a false dilemma. All I know is that I saw myself in Herbie’s pretending that he could not do math well so as to allow the brilliant human mathematician to continue to believe in his own superiority; I saw myself in Herbie’s willingness to be the confidante of the humans around him; and I see myself caught in the same net he was caught in.

My empathy raises a very good question, a question I have had without knowing exactly how to name it: how are we to be “harmless as doves” to those around us? Each day, with each action, I have the potential to hurt someone around me. Sometimes an action that helps one person seems to mortally wound another. As a Christian, how am I to navigate these waters? How can I lead my life as the person I am to be when who I am might stifle who another person is?

I guess the obvious answer is that I was not put here on this earth to please everyone, just One–Jesus Christ my Maker, Master, and Savior. But how am I to judge success at this task without seeing it through the eyes of others? I guess I am seeing that, as Donovan and Powell (the field-test scientists) learned, field tests don’t usually go the way that the laboratory tests did–things look different in real life than they do in theory. I guess I can see myself in other robots, too: like Speedy, I don’t know how to function when duty and self-preservation balance each other out, neither being more important than the other (maybe I ought to start quoting English comic opera more often!); like Dave I short out under pressure and revert to something a little less stressful (like typing on the computer at odd hours of the night–*sheepish grin*); and like Herbie I can’t handle the thought of hurting those around me–and someone is always getting hurt.

Robbie had it easy: he lived to please just one person, and it worked out just fine for him. Cutie reasoned through the facts and came to some very wrong conclusions, then just lived by the rules and procedures, quite willing to not have to understand their purpose; he lived quite happily, blissfully ignorant. But God has not called me to live ignorantly; He has called me to the truth. So, how am I to fulfil my function in this crazy world of danger, duty, unexpected dilemmas, and fragile humans? Is it an impossibility?

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