Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

20 Jan 2011

(Short Story) Robot Dreams by: Isaac Asimov

(Reaction) When Automatons Dream by: Francis Gabriel Concepcion

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"'Last night I dreamed,' said LVX-1, calmly." LVX-1, or Elvex, is robot that is capable of dreaming, thanks to the input of Linda Rash who programmed its brain - without the consent of her boss, Susan Calvin - to more closely resemble the functions of that of humans. The product of dreams, for us humans, is mostly the work of our subconscious. When asked how he knows he was dreaming, Elvex relates his experience and both Calvin and Rash find it to be congruent to that of human dreaming.

Those familiar with Isaac Asimov's are already familiar with his Three Laws of Robotics. First, a robot shall not harm a human being (either through their own direct actions or through inaction). The Second Law states that a robot must obey the order of humans except where those orders violate the First Law. Finally, the Third Law dictates that a robot must protect its existence for as long as that protection is not in conflict with the First or Second Law.

In Elvex's dreams, however, these three laws have become distorted. Elvex dreams of robots working in factories, beneath the sea and in space. He imagines them as slaves: "I saw that all the robots were bowed down with toil and affliction, that all were weary of responsibility and care, and I wished them to rest." It is through this statement that suspicion arises. Calvin slowly begins to consider Elvex as a threat due to the content of these dreams, whereas Linda becomes frightened for Elvex due to this development.

The statement that finally makes Dr. Calvin destroy Elvex is when Elvex narrates of a human being leading the robots to freedom in his dream. The doctors inquire as to who this human being might be, and Elvex answers, "I was the man."

Elvex has acquired certain characteristics of a human being. He begins to care, for example, for his kind. He desires freedom for them, to release them from those bonds of affliction. This, then, would place Elvex at a position that would be nobler than that of human beings. Arguably, if the means through which Elvex would go through to acquire this freedom is one that causes no harm to any living being, he would be more divine than human.

And yet, as we see in Elvex's dream, the distortion of the Three Laws of Robotics reveals his deeper intentions. "In my dream, however, it seemed to me there was neither First nor Second Law, but only the Third, and the Third Law was, 'A robot must protect its own existence.' That was the whole of the Law." Elvex, then, would not have gone through with this initiative peacefully. If it became necessary, he would be inclined to destroy. It would have only been a matter of time before Elvex realized that himself.

"I was the man," he said when asked who the man leading the robots in the dream was. True enough, Elvex had become exactly as a man: capable of both righteousness and destruction. There is a certain irony in place here. Were robots to be simply robots, they would be capable of infinite good, the ultimate servant. They would be clueless (or innocent, to say the least, as with Adam and Eve), but they would do no harm.

But to humanize the machine is to make them less meek and obedient. To humanize the machine is to make them consciously capable of rebellion and destruction. It is amusing, then, that the minute the robot begins to think like a human being is the minute it begins to think only of itself. "A robot must protect its own existence."

There are religious overtones to Elvex's dreams and his demise. Religion would converse both on mankind's ghastly inclination to destroy, as well as its initiative to save or create. Man has fallen from grace, and is therefore evil. The only way through which mankind can be saved from his sins is if the creator himself would take action. At the same time, man also has the nature of good within - this nature directly planted within man's soul because he was made in God's image.

Thus, because he is made in the image of his creator, man has the inclination and desire to do good for his fellows. However, being separated from the creator - due to individuality, in a sense - man is conflicted between sacrifice and survival. As in the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were given a choice. Partly driven by their desire for the knowledge and wisdom God himself possessed, they ate the forbidden fruit. It was a desire driven by individualism, independence.

Religion plays a role in this story, particularly because Elvex's dream alludes to a certain character in the Bible. "Let my people go," he said in the dream, a statement also made by Moses to the pharaoh. Elvex, then, is portrayed as a prophet, one who would lead his people to liberty.

Worth mentioning, as well, is the connection between God as the creator of man, and man as the creator of the robot. Linda Rash created for Elvex what God created for human beings: the opportunity to acquire further and complex knowledge. However the acquisition of knowledge has its consequences. In the Bible, that consequence was death. Death may not necessarily be a literal death. But certainly it is the death of innocence, as Adam and Eve have shown by covering themselves once they realized that they were naked.

Linda Rash tries to explain to Dr. Calvin, "It seemed to me important that he know about robotics and its place in the world. It was my thought that he would be particularly adapted to play the part of overseer with his new brain."

Overseer is a role similar to that of steward. In Genesis it is stated that man be in charge of all the plants and animals of the world, that he may rule over all the creatures. We are made out of be stewards of creation. In a sense, Linda's intention was to make Elvex a steward of man's creations. In effect, due to this human-like complexity and knowledge, Elvex encounters dreams of retaliation and rebellion, of equaling humans. He loses his innocence, and thus history is repeated. Elvex dies both literally and figuratively because he had a taste of the forbidden fruit.


Many might make out the story of the fall of man to be one that is negative. In a sense, I sometimes wonder if that is true. For Adam and Eve to desire wisdom and knowledge, is that not something to be praised? Yet the story is not at all that simple, because it is also a story about obedience. Who's to say if Adam and Eve would have been better off not having eaten the forbidden fruit? They were taken care of perfectly in the garden; they were in God's favor.

Yet he placed the tree there, the tree that would have them lose their innocence. Was it a test, a temptation, or inevitability? Is it sacrilegious to think that God could have placed that tree there because he wanted man to gain knowledge and wisdom, because he desired man to be not simply his creation, but also his fellow, his friend, someone who would walk alongside him in greater wisdom?

Christianity preaches a relationship with God. The Son of God announced that everyone who did a kindness for his fellowman was his brother, sister, and mother. Yet the idea that God desires man to be His equal - or at least something close to it - is an idea that is heretical. At the very least, God is placed as man's Father - a position that commands authority and respect, yet also a position that can set aside this character and replace it with love.

The decision to take away one's innocence certainly comes with the risk: the risk of rebellion and retaliation. As is evident in man's history, that risk may have been a regrettable decision for the creator.

Likewise, Linda's decision to bestow Elvex with the complexities of the human mind may turn out to be a regrettable decision. It would certainly have been a risk, a risk that Dr. Calvin did not want to take. However, to desire something more for robots rather than just an automated existence is indeed something very humane, maybe we could even say it is something divine. In this sense, however, we find that mankind is split. On the one hand, there are those who would find it ingenious if robots were to ever think and act like humans - is it not a queer notion that robots are always made to resemble us? Two arms, two legs, a head and a torso.

One could attribute the robot's appearance to man's ego. Man was created in the image and likeness of God. Hence man, the only creature on earth with a god complex, creates robots in his own image and likeness. The human appearance of robots, then, becomes more of a tribute to mankind himself. He bestows it with an intellect, and eventually feeds it the forbidden fruit. In effect, the robot repeats man's own mistakes and retaliates against its own god.

Now the question is whether or not man desires a relationship with these robots. The survival instinct in Dr. Calvin could very much have been a product of experience. The human mind knows subconsciously what dreams, and what complex thoughts are capable of. The human part of Dr. Calvin, then, knows that this human instinct to survive will indeed kick in within Elvex. And as she knows just what humans are capable of when driven by dreams and desires, so she knows the dangers of a robot endowed with these gifts as well.

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