R. Daneel Olivaw, the Robotic Police Partner

Zachary Reiss-Davis, '08, The Cyborg Self, Brown University, Spring 2005

Isaac Asimov was the founder of our modern concept of a robot, was in fact the first person to use the word robotics in print. While his first robots were created in 1942, Asimov expanded the concept to include "humiform robots" or what later authors would call androids in The Caves of Steel in 1953.

In this book, R. Daneel Olivaw can not be told apart from a human unless he is seen in a situation where he refuses to violate the The Three Laws of Robotics. His mind is at least as quick as that of a human, and his appearance is indistinguishable, but his physical strength and reasoning abilities are in fact superior to a normal human being, such as his police partner Elijah Baley. In the novel, Robots are allowed on Earth only in a very limited manner, and are mainly only used on colonized planets as a labor force. Like all of Asimov's robots, Olivaw is a mechanical machine who has been carefully engineered to look precisely human (through unexplained science). Like all of Asimov's robots, his mind is a positronic brain, a mysterious device which is the pseudo-scientific explanation for the technology behind the robots' consciousness.

The following passage, found here is the scene when Baley meets Olivaw. When Baley meets Olivaw, he does not know the "R." in his name stands for Robot, and being an Earthman has never met or thought about what a robot might be. He meets Olivaw as if he was a human being from one of the colonized worlds, whom he would have an effectively racist reaction towards.

Baley approached woodenly and said in a monotone, "I am Plainclothes Man Elijah Baley, Police Department, City of New York, Rating C-5."

He showed his credentials and went on, "I have been instructed to meet R. Daneel Olivaw at Spacetown Approachway." He looked at his watch. "I am a little early. May I request the announcement of my presence?"

He felt more than a little cold inside. He was used, after a fashion, to the Earth-model robots. The Spacer models would be different. He had never met one, but there was nothing more common on Earth than the horrid whispered stories about the tremendous and formidable robots that worked in superhuman fashion on the far-off, glittering Outer Worlds. He found himself gritting his teeth... The Spacer said, "I shall introduce myself. I am R. Daneel Olivaw... I am a robot. Were you not told?" The robot's hand closed on his with a smoothly increasing pressure that reached a comfortably friendly peak, then declined. "Yet I seem to detect disturbance. May I ask that you be frank with me? It is best to have as many relevant facts as possible in a relationship such as ours. And it is customary on my world for partners to call one another by the familiar name. I trust that that is not counter to your own customs."


Is there a fundamental difference between authors who decided to implicitly or explicitly use the Three Laws of Robots to govern the behavior of their AIs and those who do not? What is it?

Asimov originally conceived of his robots as benevolent beings - how and why has that visualization changed between his time and the cyberpunk era?

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Last modified 22 March 2005