Android’s Dream: R. Daneel Olivaw

Posted by CB Droege

Throughout the long history of fiction, androids and gynoids - artificial men and women - have been a common element. When included as tertiary characters they are often symbols for "the other."

When treated as protagonists, they fill the tale with themes of the roles and definitions of humanity. Thus, this series is taking a close look at these artificial people. Today we’re looking at R. Daneel Olivaw.

Daneel is one of the many mechanical men in Isaac Asimov’s many novels. He is the most used character in the vast canon Asimov developed, and became, in the later books, extremely important to the development of human society.

Daneel was designed and constructed by a pair of spacers at the US Robots and Mechanical Men facilities on Earth. When crafted, he was made in the image of one of his co-creators, Roj Sarton. He was the first robot ever to be created with such a well-crafted human likeness that he was visually indistinguishable from the real thing.

When Sarton was murdered shortly after, Daneel met Detective Elijah Baley, who had been assigned to the case.

The two worked together to find the murderer, beginning a long-lasting partnership and friendship which took them through many cases together as they watched human society transformed by new developments, including the advanced androids.

Of course, you could say that that career was just the beginning of his story, as for the next 19,000 years or so, he spent his time manipulating human society from the shadows. It began with his invention of the Zeroth law of Robotics, a corollary to the Three Laws of Robotics which were embedded in the positronic brain of every robot ever created. This Zeroth Law stated that a robot shall never harm humanity, or through inaction allow humanity to come to harm. 

He spent thousands of years perfecting the theories and uses of this new law, and integrating it into his own circuits. The result was that he secretly pushed the foundation of the Galactic Empire which ruled over the million worlds of humanity, and allowed them to live robot-free lives, ending the reliance on robots, and the controversy of androids in society. Eventually robots all found themselves in secret places in society, invisible to the human population, and living as humans in the Empire.

Long after the Empire was already in place, Daneel realized that he could not help guide humanity forever, so he invented a field of scientific study called Humanics. The purpose of this new science was to explore the actions and history of man in an effort to see how best they could be helped. 

Some years later, Daneel guided a young Humanics student to develop Phychohistory, which was the practice of using Humanics study to predict the future of humanity. It was from these studies that The Fountation was formed, which guided humanity into an otherwise uncertain future under the guise of a great library, called the Encyclopedia Galactica.

Interestingly, Daneel serves as a sort of guardian angel for Asimov’s human societies. It’s revealed at various points that Daneel has been behind one plan or another, and without his constant guidance and guardianship, the entire species would have descended into barbarous chaos several times over. In some ways, then, he is the ultimate creation of man.

In this way it is a symbol for man’s salvation. Humanity cannot, and will not be saved by an omnipotent deity. Humanity will only be saved by its own actions, weather it realizes that those actions are its own or not.

Also, despite his never having the desire to be a ‘real person’, Daneel is the epitome of selflessness. It may be part of his programming, yes, but still he always acts in ways that benefit man. After the installation of the Zeroth law, very action he takes, large or small, is carefully calculated to be helpful rather than harmful or even neutral.

Check back tomorrow, when our featured artificial person will be the Human Torch. If you have an idea for an android or gynoid we could feature, let us know in the comments.