Stock and Trade: U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men

Often when the protagonist of a speculative narrative must struggle against an unfeeling world, that world is represented by a faceless conglomerate, a near-governmental corporation which seems to control facets of society wherever the character looks.

So in Stock and Trade, our latest genre fiction feature series, we’re looking at fictional corporations. Today, we’re featuring U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men.

In Isaac Asimov’s expansive story universe, U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men is the company which invented and produces all robots. They have a monopoly on robotic technology development, manufacturing and trade. The most advanced robots they produce, and the subject of many of Asimov’s stories, are the mechanical men, androidal and imbued with artificial intelligence.

The corporation was founded in the 80’s by Lawrence Robertson as a research and manufacturing firm dedicated to the new field of robotics.

Twenty or so years later, under pressure from the people of the world, the nations of earth banned all use of humanoid Robots on the surface of the planet, restricting the use of androids to space stations and off world colonies, similar to Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

At the time, U.S. Robots still had a monopoly on the technology, however, so the world powers agreed to allow constructed, functioning robots to be in the manufacturing facility in Schenectady, New York.

The definite thing that U.S. Robotics had over their competition was the positronic brain. Formed from an alloy of platinum and iridium, the positronic brain was mostly made of technobabble, with the details of its construction left intentionally vague.

The big thing, however, was that they were all constructed with the irreversible hardwired coding of the famous Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

 These laws made Mechanical Men possible, and made them safe, but the company was unable to convince the public of the security inherent in the laws.

Of course, many of the robot stories involved either mechanics in the field, or Dr. Calvin at the research center dealing with the possible flaws in the laws. It always turns out that the robots were following the laws in an unexpected way, however, and the security is reestablished.

Dr. Susan Calvin, a robopsychologist was an integral part of the U.S. Robots company, and the stories, often appearing as the voice of moral guidance for the corporation, making unilateral decisions on behalf of the company and humanity.

One of the starkest examples of this comes in the short story Elvvex, in which a younger researcher brings a malfunctioning robot to Dr. Calvin. The robot has been dreaming, which Calvin believes shouldn’t be possible.

When it’s revealed that the robot has been dreaming of rescuing the rest of the robots from slavery, she makes the immediate decision to destroy the robot, and does so herself, on the spot, with no apparent need to consult any higher authority.

The end of the company is a bit under explained in the official canon, as it seems to be going strong still at the time of Calvin’s death in 2064, but robots are rare vestiges of a time long past in the Galactic Empire of the Foundation series, eight thousand years later.

As all mechanical man stories are, the Robot tales are a sort-of Pinocchio tale, but Asimov’s writings about androids and U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men seemed to specifically throw off the Frankenstein Complex suffered by almost all robot stories up to that point.

The fear that mechanical creations would rise up against their creators dominated robot stories of the time, and to an extent it still does, and while Asimov may have not been the first to write about robots in a more sympathetic light, he was certainly the most influential.

Come back tomorrow, when we’ll be taking a look at Massive Dynamic. If you have an idea for a corporation we could feature in this series, let us know in the comments.