When a robot reads your mind – Isaac Asimov and “Liar!”

When a robot reads your mind - Isaac Asimov and "Liar!"
The robot Herbie and Dr. Susan Calvin
from Harlan Ellison’s screen play for "I, Robot" illustrated by Mark Zug

In these excerpts from the chapter Liar! from Isaac Asimov’s book I, Robot, three scientists try to figure out how a production error caused a recently manufactured robot, named Herbie, to be able to read minds.

Psychologist Susan Calvin talks with the mind-reading robot after he reads some scientific texts, and the robot says he’s not as interested in science:


"It’s your fiction that interests me. Your studies of the interplay of human motives and emotions." His mighty hand gestured vaguely as he sought the proper words.

Dr. Calvin whispered, "I think I understand."

"I see into minds, you see," the robot continued, "and you have no idea how complicated they are. I can’t begin to understand everything because my own mind has so little in common with them – but I try, and your novels help."

"Yes, but I’m afraid that after going through some of the harrowing emotional experiences of our present-day sentimental novel" – there was a tinge of bitterness in her voice – "you find real minds like ours dull and colorless."

"But I don’t!"

The sudden energy in the response brought the other to her feet. She felt herself reddening, and thought wildly, "He must know!"

Herbie subsided suddenly, and muttered in a low voice from which the metallic timbre departed almost entirely. "But, of course, I know about it, Dr. Calvin. You think of it always, so how can I help but know?"
Her face was hard. "Have you – told anyone?"

"Of course not!" This, with genuine surprise, "No one has asked me."

"Well, then," she flung out, "I suppose you think I am a fool."

"No! It is a normal emotion."

"Perhaps that is why it is so foolish." The wistfulness in her voice drowned out everything else. Some of the woman peered through the layer of doctorhood. "I am not what you would call – attractive."

"If you are referring to mere physical attraction, I couldn’t judge. But I know, in any case, that there are other types of attraction."

"Nor young." Dr. Calvin had scarcely heard the robot.

"You are not yet forty." An anxious insistence had crept into Herbie’s voice.

"Thirty-eight as you count the years; a shriveled sixty as far as my emotional outlook on life is concerned. Am I a psychologist for nothing?"

She drove on with bitter breathlessness, "And he’s barely thirty-five and looks and acts younger. Do you suppose he ever sees me as anything but… but what I am?"

"You are wrong!" Herbie’s steel fist struck the plastic-topped table with a strident clang. "Listen to me-"

But Susan Calvin whirled on him now and the hunted pain in her eyes became a blaze, "Why should I? What do you know about it all, anyway, you… you machine. I’m just a specimen to you; an interesting bug with a peculiar mind spread-eagled for inspection. It’s a wonderful example of frustration, isn’t it? Almost as good as your books." Her voice, emerging in dry sobs, choked into silence.

The robot cowered at the outburst. He shook his head pleadingly. "Won’t you listen to me, please? I could help you if you would let me."

"How?" Her lips curled. "By giving me good advice?"

"No, not that. It’s just that I know what other people think – Milton Ashe, for instance."

There was a long silence, and Susan Calvin’s eyes dropped. "I don’t want to know what he thinks," she gasped. "Keep quiet."

"I think you would want to know what he thinks"

Her head remained bent, but her breath came more quickly. "You are talking nonsense," she whispered.

"Why should I? I am trying to help. Milton Ashe’s thoughts of you-" he paused.

And then the psychologist raised her head, "Well?"

The robot said quietly, "He loves you."

For a full minute, Dr. Calvin did not speak. She merely stared. Then, "You are mistaken! You must be. Why should he?"

"But he does. A thing like that cannot be hidden, not from me."

"But I am so… so-" she stammered to a halt.

"He looks deeper than the skin, and admires intellect in others. Milton Ashe is not the type to marry a head of hair and a pair of eyes."

Susan Calvin found herself blinking rapidly and waited before speaking. Even then her voice trembled, "Yet he certainly never in any way indicated-"

"Have you ever given him a chance?"

"How could I? I never thought that-"


The psychologist paused in thought and then looked up suddenly. "A girl visited him here at the plant half a year ago. She was pretty, I suppose – blond and slim. And, of course, could scarcely add two and two. He spent all day puffing out his chest, trying to explain how a robot was put together." The hardness had returned, "Not that she understood! Who was she?"

Herbie answered without hesitation, "I know the person you are referring to. She is his first cousin, and there is no romantic interest there, I assure you."

Susan Calvin rose to her feet with a vivacity almost girlish. "Now isn’t that strange? That’s exactly what I used to pretend to myself sometimes, though I never really thought so. Then it all must be true."

She ran to Herbie and seized his cold, heavy hand in both hers. "Thank you, Herbie." Her voice was an urgent, husky whisper. "Don’t tell anyone about this. Let it be our secret – and thank you again." With that, and a convulsive squeeze of Herbie’s unresponsive metal fingers, she left.

Herbie turned slowly to his neglected novel, but there was no one to read his thoughts.


The mathematician Peter Bogert talks to the robot about Bogert’s boss, Albert Lanning:


"By the way-"

The robot waited.

Bogert seemed to have difficulty. "There is something – that is, perhaps you can – " He stopped.

Herbie spoke quietly. "Your thoughts are confused, but there is no doubt at all that they concern Dr. Lanning. It is silly to hesitate, for as soon as you compose yourself, I’ll know what it is you want to ask."

The mathematician’s hand went to his sleek hair in the familiar smoothing gesture. "Lanning is nudging seventy," he said, as if that explained everything.

 "I know that."

"And he’s been director of the plant for almost thirty years." Herbie nodded.

"Well, now," Bogert’s voice became ingratiating, "you would know whether… whether he’s thinking of resigning. Health, perhaps, or some other-"

"Quite," said Herbie, and that was all.

"Well, do you know?"


"Then-uh-could you tell me?"

"Since you ask, yes." The robot was quite matter-of-fact about it. "He has already resigned!"

"What!" The exclamation was an explosive, almost inarticulate, sound. The scientist’s large head hunched forward, "Say that again!"

"He has already resigned," came the quiet repetition, "but it has not yet taken effect. He is waiting, you see, to solve the problem of – er – myself. That finished, he is quite ready to turn the office of director over to his successor."

Bogert expelled his breath sharply, "And this successor? Who is he?" He was quite close to Herbie now, eyes fixed fascinatedly on those unreadable dull-red photoelectric cells that were the robot’s eyes.

Words came slowly, "You are the next director."

And Bogert relaxed into a tight smile, "This is good to know. I’ve been hoping and waiting for this. Thanks, Herbie."


Peter Bogert and his boss Alfred Lanning have a violent argument, and Bogert confronts Lanning with the fact that he knows he’s resigned his position because he got it from Herbie’s mind-reading abilities. Lanning denies that he’s resigned, angrily suspends Bogert, and they go to Herbie to sort it out. At the same time, Susan Calvin discovers that the man she loves, Milton Ashe, has a secret – he is getting married to the girl who was there last summer. She flees from Ashe to confront Herbie:


He was speaking, and she felt the cold glass pressing against her lips. She swallowed and shuddered into a pertain awareness of her surroundings.

Still Herbie spoke, and there was agitation in his voice – as if he were hurt and frightened and pleading.

The words were beginning to make sense. "This is a dream," he was saying, "and you mustn’t believe in it. You’ll wake into the real world soon and laugh at yourself. He loves you, I tell you. He does, he does! But not here! Not now! This is an illusion."

Susan Calvin nodded, her voice a whisper, "Yes! Yes!" She was clutching Herbie’s arm, clinging to it, repeating over and over, "It isn’t true, is it? It isn’t, is it?"

Just how she came to her senses, she never knew – but it was like passing from a world of misty unreality to one of harsh sunlight. She pushed him away from her, pushed hard against that steely arm, and her eyes were wide.

"What are you trying to do?" Her voice rose to a harsh scream. "What are you trying to do? "

Herbie backed away, "I want to help"

The psychologist stared, "Help? By telling me this is a dream? By trying to push me into schizophrenia?" A hysterical tenseness seized her, "This is no dream! I wish it were!"

She drew her breath sharply, "Wait! Why… why, I understand. Merciful Heavens, it’s so obvious."

There was horror in the robot’s voice, "I had to!"

"And I believed you! I never thought-"

Loud voices outside the door brought her to a halt. She turned away, fists clenching spasmodically, and when Bogert and Lanning entered, she was at the far window. Neither of the men paid her the slightest attention.

They approached Herbie simultaneously; Lanning angry and impatient, Bogert, coolly sardonic.

The director spoke first.

"Here now, Herbie. Listen to me!"

The robot brought his eyes sharply down upon the aged director, "Yes, Dr. Lanning."

"Have you discussed me with Dr. Bogert?"

"No, sir." The answer came slowly, and the smile on Bogert’s face flashed off.

"What’s that?" Bogert shoved in ahead of his superior and straddled the ground before the robot.

"Repeat what you told me yesterday."

"I said that…" Herbie fell silent. Deep within him his metallic diaphragm vibrated in soft discords.

 "Didn’t you say he had resigned?" roared Bogert. "Answer me!"

Bogert raised his arm frantically, but Lanning pushed him aside, "Are you trying to bully him into lying?"

"You heard him, Lanning. He began to say ‘Yes’ and stopped.

"Get out of my way! I want the truth out of him, understand!"

"I’ll ask him!" Lanning turned to the robot. "All right, Herbie, take it easy. Have I resigned?"

Herbie stared, and Lanning repeated anxiously, "Have I resigned?" There was the faintest trace of a negative shake of the robot’s head. A long wait produced nothing further.

The two men looked at each other and the hostility in their eyes was all but tangible.

"What the devil," blurted Bogert, "has the robot gone mute? Can’t you speak, you monstrosity?"

"I can speak," came the ready answer.

"Then answer the question. Didn’t you tell me Lanning had resigned? Hasn’t he resigned?"

And again there was nothing but dull silence, until from the end of the room Susan Calvin’s laugh rang out suddenly, high-pitched and semi-hysterical.

The two mathematicians jumped, and Bogert’s eyes narrowed, "You here? What’s so funny?"

"Nothing’s funny." Her voice was not quite natural. "It’s just that I’m not the only one that’s been caught. There’s irony in three of the greatest experts in robotics in the world falling into the same elementary trap, isn’t there?" Her voice faded, and she put a pale hand to her forehead, "But it isn’t funny!"

This time the look that passed between the two men was one of raised eyebrows. "What trap are you talking about?" asked Lansing stiffly. "Is something wrong with Herbie?"

"No," she approached them slowly, "nothing is wrong with him – only with us." She whirled suddenly and shrieked at the robot, "Get away from me! Go to the other end of the room and don’t let me look at you."

Herbie cringed before the fury of her eyes and stumbled away in a clattering trot.

Lanning’s voice was hostile, "What is all this, Dr. Calvin?"

She faced them and spoke sarcastically, "Surely you know the fundamental First Law of Robotics."

The other two nodded together. "Certainly," said Bogert, irritably, "a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow him to come to harm"

"How nicely put," sneered Calvin. "But what kind of harm?"

"Why – any kind."

"Exactly! Any kind! But what about hurt feelings? What about deflation of one’s ego? What about the blasting of one’s hopes? Is that injury?"

Lanning frowned, "What would a robot know about-" And then he caught himself with a gasp.

"You’ve caught on, have you? This robot reads minds. Do you suppose it doesn’t know everything about mental injury? Do you suppose that if asked a question, it wouldn’t give exactly that answer that one wants to hear? Wouldn’t any other answer hurt us, and wouldn’t Herbie know that?"

 "Good Heavens!" muttered Bogert.

The psychologist cast a sardonic glance at him, "I take it you asked him whether Lanning had resigned. You wanted to hear that he had resigned and so that’s what Herbie told you."

"And I suppose that is why," said Lanning, tonelessly, "it would not answer a little while ago. It couldn’t answer either way without hurting one of us."

There was a short pause in which the men looked thoughtfully across the room at the robot, crouching in the chair by the bookcase, head resting in one hand.

Susan Calvin stared steadfastly at the floor, "He knew of all this. That… that devil knows everything – including what went wrong in his assembly." Her eyes were dark and brooding.

Lanning looked up, "You’re wrong there, Dr. Calvin. He doesn’t know what went wrong. I asked him."

"What does that mean?" cried Calvin. "Only that you didn’t want him to give you the solution. It would puncture your ego to have a machine do what you couldn’t. Did you ask him?" she shot at Bogert.

"In a way." Bogert coughed and reddened. "He told me he knew very little about mathematics."

Lanning laughed, not very loudly and the psychologist smiled caustically. She said, "I’ll ask him! A solution by him won’t hurt my ego." She raised her voice into a cold, imperative, "Come here!" Herbie rose and approached with hesitant steps.

"You know, I suppose," she continued, "just exactly at what point in the assembly an extraneous factor was introduced or an essential one left out."

"Yes," said Herbie, in tones barely heard.

"Hold on," broke in Bogert angrily. "That’s not necessary true. You want to hear that, that’s all."

"Don’t be a fool," replied Calvin. "He certainly knows as much math as you and Lanning together, since he can read minds. Give him his chance."

The mathematician subsided, and Calvin continued, "All right, then, Herbie, give! We’re waiting." And in an aside, "Get pencils and paper, gentlemen."

But Herbie remained silent, and there was triumph in the psychologist’s voice, "Why don’t you answer, Herbie?"

The robot blurted out suddenly, "I cannot. You know I cannot! Dr. Bogert and Dr. Lanning don’t want me to."

"They want the solution."

"But not from me."

Lanning broke in, speaking slowly and distinctly, "Don’t be foolish, Herbie. We do want you to tell us."

Bogert nodded curtly.

Herbie’s voice rose to wild heights, "What’s the use of saying that? Don’t you suppose that I can see past the superficial skin of your mind? Down below, you don’t want me to. I’m a machine, given the imitation of life only by virtue of the positronic interplay in my brain – which is man’s device. You can’t lose face to me without being hurt. That is deep in your mind and won’t be erased. I can’t give the solution."

"We’ll leave," said Dr. Lanning. "Tell Calvin."

"That would make no difference," cried Herbie, "since you would know anyway that it was I that was supplying the answer."

Calvin resumed, "But you understand, Herbie, that despite that, Drs. Lanning and Bogert want that solution."

"By their own efforts!" insisted Herbie.

"But they want it, and the fact that you have it and won’t give it hurts them. You see that, don’t you?"

"Yes! Yes!"

"And if you tell them that will hurt them, too"

"Yes! Yes!" Herbie was retreating slowly, and step-by-step Susan Calvin advanced. The two men watched in frozen bewilderment.

"You can’t tell them," droned the psychologist slowly, "because that would hurt and you mustn’t hurt. But if you don’t tell them, you hurt, so you must tell them. And if you do, you will hurt and you mustn’t, so you can’t tell them; but if you don’t, you hurt, so you must; but if you do, you hurt, so you mustn’t; but if you don’t, you hurt, so you must; but if you do, you-"

Herbie was up against the wall, and here he dropped to his knees. "Stop!" he shrieked. "Close your mind! It is full of pain and frustration and hate! I didn’t mean it, I tell you! I tried to help! I told you what you wanted to hear. I had to!"

The psychologist paid no attention. "You must tell them, but if you do, you hurt, so you mustn’t; but if you don’t, you hurt, so you must; but-"

And Herbie screamed!

It was like the whistling of a piccolo many times magnified – shrill and shriller till it keened with the terror of a lost soul and filled the room with the piercingness of itself.

And when it died into nothingness, Herbie collapsed into a huddled heap of motionless metal.

Bogert’s face was bloodless, "He’s dead!"

"No!" Susan Calvin burst into body-racking gusts of wild laughter, "not dead – merely insane. I confronted him with the insoluble dilemma, and he broke down. You can scrap him now – because he’ll never speak again."

Lanning was on his knees beside the thing that had been Herbie. His fingers touched the cold, unresponsive metal face and he shuddered. "You did that on purpose." He rose and faced her, face contorted.

"What if I did? You can’t help it now." And in a sudden access of bitterness, "He deserved it."

The director seized the paralyzed, motionless Bogert by the wrist, "What’s the difference. Come, Peter." He sighed, "A thinking robot of this type is worthless anyway." His eyes were old and tired, and he repeated, "Come, Peter!"

It was minutes after the two scientists left that Dr. Susan Calvin regained part of her mental equilibrium. Slowly, her eyes turned to the living-dead Herbie and the tightness returned to her face. Long she stared while the triumph faded and the helpless frustration returned – and of all her turbulent thoughts only one infinitely bitter word passed her lips.


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