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The Rest of the Robots (SF) - Isaac Asimov ***

Asimov's second collection of robot short stories is arguably a little better than I, Robot - apart from anything else it lacks the painfully unfunny bantering in the stories featuring the engineers Donovan and Powell in that earlier collection. Once again there are some clever problems set up - such as the failure of a robot to pilot a test flight of the first hyperdrive ship (giving the character who deactivates the ship some serious peril). But as before, these are stories of ideas that feel a little too cerebral and that have dated more than the novels seem to have done.

For me, far and above the best story was the final one in the collection, Galley Slave, which Asimov notes is his favourite Susan Calvin story - I'd agree. The actual setup of the story is very unlikely, but it's entertainingly set as a court case. What is particularly interesting is the parallel with the present agonies about generative AI such as ChatGPT in academia. The 'galley' of the story is not a ship, but the old style book proofs that ran down extra long pages and had wide margins in which to make obscure marks to indicate editorial changes.

In the story, a robot is provided to a university to do brainwork - one of its main capabilities is proof reading, which it does at high speed and accuracy. But the concern is inevitably that it will go beyond simply freeing up humans' time to rendering them redundant.  It's interesting both from the real parallels with the future of generative AI, and also in exposing particularly well Asimov's blind spot that he felt such work had to be done by a robot rather than a computer (because inputting and outputting text would be too difficult). The idea that a humanoid robot would be easier to facilitate than text input and output is remarkable.

There are six Asimov robot titles in all, and it's very useful to get the robot prehistory from the stories to put the novels into context, though the full-length books do seem to read better. Reading them all in close proximity, it's interesting to see the inconsistencies in Asimov's robot storyline - particularly in the way that the short stories are largely set in the twenty-first century, while the novels leap forward thousands of years, despite there being very little advance in the computing technology (even the robots only advance slightly).

As with I, Robot, I was a touch disappointed, as I remembered (from many years ago) the short stories being rather better than they are - but I'm still glad to have come back to them.

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Review by Brian Clegg - See all Brian's online articles or subscribe to a weekly email free here

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