In Asimov's short story Evidence there is a strong suggestion that Stephen Byerley is a robot. However, in the very next story in the series The Evitable Conflict he shows a lack of understanding how robots work and 'think' to the level that made me reconsider him as a human being.

Was he ever mentioned again, in another story, or perhaps by Asimov himself? Was it ever confirmed if he was a robot or not, or was it left to the readers' imagination?

  • This is a good question, because, afterall, Prelude to the Foundation does not definitely tell whether Dors is a robot, and the answer is given in Forward the Foundation. – b_jonas Apr 15 '14 at 5:26

In “Evidence”, Asimov is markedly careful not to reveal whether Byerley is a robot, and not to leave any evidence one way or another. This story is constructed very much like a mystery. We have clues, but no telling clue, no protagonist to expose the plot at the end. Or do we? Susan Calvin is very much Asimov's heroine, so by mystery conventions her word is the author's word. When asked whether Byerley was a robot, her reply is

Oh, there's no way of every finding out. I think he was. But then, […] what difference would it make?

So there you have it: it is very likely that Byerley was a robot, but that is not the point of the story. Underneath the mystery wrapped up in science fiction, this is a story with a moral — that it does not matter whether Byerley was a robot.

I disagree that “The Evitable Conflict” shows Byerley as misunderstanding robots. He has an imperfect understanding of them. He's not an expert robopsychologist, any more than most humans are expert psychologists. Susan Calvin is an expert, and so she can understand the Machines better than Byerley.

The Machines apply what Asimov would later call the Zeroth Law. In Susan Calvin's words in “The Evitable Conflict”:

No Machine may harm humanity; or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

In “The Evitable Conflict”, this is not an extra law but rather the Machines' perception of the First Law. Unlike most robots, which normally interact with individual humans, the Machines handle humanity as a whole, and so their First Law potential is determined not by the sum of the harm they are causing to a few individual humans but rather by the sum of the harm they are causing to all of humans. Furthermore their experience is removed from individual humans, and robot's perceptions of humans is very much like empathy, so individual harm is something they see from afar and give little account to. These effects are manifest to Susan Calvin, but if Byerley is a robot, they would be alien, verging on inconceivable to him.

By the way, if you read “Evidence” carefully, you'll notice that Byerley, like the author, is quite careful in avoiding directly stating that he is not a robot. He'll express surprise or scorn at the idea, declare that he is legally a human, deny that he can be proven a robot — but he doesn't outright say “I am not a robot”. While Asimovian robots are certainly capable of lying, this is not their normal behavior, and Byerley, if he is a robot, is no exception. The Machines, on the other hand, thanks to their distanciation from individual humans, have no compunction against lying to one. This is another hurdle for robot-Byerley's understanding of the Machines.

If I remember correctly, Byerley's roboticity is alluded to at some point in the Robots and Empire series. All that tells is that history will remember him as a (probable) robot. Oddly enough, Robots and Empire makes the best argument against Byerley's being a robot: R. Daneel Olivaw is officially the first humaniform robot, and his design and construction was quite a feat, so it is surprising that another humaniform robot, about as sophisticated, would have been constructed centuries earlier. The Caves of Steel, which introduces R. Daneel Olivaw, was published in 1954, 8 years after “Evidence”; so this minor discrepancy is excusable. It is also minimized by the fact that Byerley was an isolated case designed by a lone genius inventor (a role that Asimov put much store in, quite strangely for a scientist).

I don't believe Asimov ever explicitly said whether Byerley is a robot. I think he would fully agree with Susan Calvin's words above.

  • Thanks for the detailed answer. The very fact that I continued to think about that question is exactly why I liked that story so much. It seems that the key part here is that just like not all humans are psychologists, not all robots have to be robotics knowledge. Anyway, it may be just my impression, but he did at least seem a lot more human in Evitable Conflict. Perhaps, Asimov wanted to confuse readers a bit more to make things interesting. If so, it worked! – Goran Jovic Jun 24 '11 at 21:25
  • 3
    FYI, heroin != heroine. Unless you're implying that Asimov was addicted to writing Susan Calvin stories... :) – John C Jun 24 '11 at 22:05
  • Robots of Dawn makes a big deal about how unlikely the humaniform robot construction was, and while referencing 'Liar!' never refers to 'Evidence'. It also re-states that Han Fastolfe's and Sarton's two creations, R. Daneel Olivaw and R. Jander Panell were the first ever. If Byerley was a robot, then nobody in universe ever found out, and according to I, Robot notes from Susan Calvin, he had his body atomized after his demise to make sure of that. – kert Oct 30 '15 at 23:21
  • @kert I don't understand how that can work. Wasn't Andrew Martin from Bicentennial Man also a robot in human form at some point, and preceding Sarton? – b_jonas Dec 9 '15 at 15:51
  • @b_jonas He underwent a slow process of "humanization" and was worked on by many different people over the two hundred years of his life rather than being created as a human-seeming robot from the start, so he might not quite count. – JAB Dec 2 '16 at 19:31

He really was a robot! When you read the introduction for the book Robot Visions (my edition is from 1994), Asimov says:

"It is the first story in which I made use of a humanoid robot. Stephen Byerly, the humanoid robot in question (though in the story I don't make it absolutely clear whether he is a robot or not), represents my first approach toward R. Daneel Olivaw, the humaniform robot who appears in a number of my novels."

  • It's implicit acknowledgement to mention it, but Asimov regarded Ellison's treatment of I, Robot for screen to be "the first really adult, complex, worthwhile science fiction movie ever made." IIRC - in that treatment of the stories, not only is Byerly handled as though he were a robot but he is a transformed Lenny (the six fingered robot). – Stick Apr 15 '14 at 19:12

There was never a confirmation of his status in either direction, though Asimov hints that Susan Calvin believes him to have been a robot.

His lack of understanding in The Evitable Conflict is understandable. Robots do NOT immediately know and understand every action another robot takes. If a robot has followed a long, convoluted logic chain to reach a conclusion it is NOT a given that another robot can follow it unaided.

Robots, by and large, do not make intuitive leaps. It's likely that, were Byerley a robot, he would immediately dismiss "The machines did it" as the source of the human's harm (since the machines can do no harm to humans) and his logical pathways would not permit analysis down those paths.

It's also possible, were he a robot, that years of politics and compromises, of dealing intimately with the human factor, would damage his ability to follow the actions of another robot who lacked these experiences.

Finally, the Optimizing Computers which drive The Evitable Conflict are MUCH more powerful than any individual robot, and have a much broader and finer set of data. Robot-Byerley would not have been able to computer as well as they did, and would not have had the same starting point (since he lacked data), meaning his ability to mimic their logic path would have been compromised significantly.

Or, y'know, he could have been a human.

  • You're right. Even, if he were a humanoid robot, it wouldn't make sense to even compare him to the Machines. A good mystery, indeed. – Goran Jovic Jun 24 '11 at 21:30

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