Asimov traces the history of the development of robots from the invention of automatic clocks and other kinds of toy clockwork automatons to the role of the computer and microchips in increasing the number of tasks robots can perform. He also tells how science fiction inspired scientists and engineers to work toward advances described in the stories.
Many thousands of industrial robots are being used in factories today. Will they soon be used to pick oranges off trees and to harvest wheat and corn? Asimov describes some of the problems still to be solved and discusses what effect the use of robots will have on people who have these jobs.
He predicts that someday human beings will wonder how they ever got along without robots.
For the older Asimov fan, there is little here that isn’t covered either in Robots: Machines in Man’s Image or various of Asimov’s collections of essays on science fiction—the story of Pygmalion, the golem, Frankenstein and R.U.R., and so on through Asimov’s own work. (Fan though I am, I tend to be rather annoyed by Asimov’s near implication here that the history of robots in sf basically stopped when he first published the Three Laws.) Like How Did We Find Out About Computers?, there’s a cute picture of Asimov with one of the annoying toy “robots” of a few decades ago.
What makes this book a little more interesting than most of the other “How Did We Find Out” series is Asimov’s inconsistent coyness—in one chapter, he steadfastly refers to himself in the third person with a footnote explaining that yes, he really is talking about himself, and in another (to illustrate how we‘re a long way from replacing people with robots) he talks about himself in the first person. This stylistic glitch is rather unusual and interesting to see in action; otherwise, the book has little interest except for its target audience.