THE THREE LAWS OF ROBOTICS

ccording to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first passage in Asimov’s short story “Liar!” (1941) that mentions the First Law is the earliest recorded use of the word robotics. Asimov was not initially aware of this; he assumed the word already existed by analogy with mechanics, hydraulics, and other similar terms denoting branches of applied knowledge.The Three Laws form an organizing principle and unifying theme for Asimov’s fiction, appearing in his Robot series and the other stories linked to it, as well as his Lucky Starr series of science-oriented young-adult fiction. In science fiction, the Three Laws of Robotics are a set of three rules written by Isaac Asimov, which almost all positronic robots appearing in his fiction must obey. Introduced in his 1942 short story “Runaround”, although foreshadowed in a few earlier stories, the Laws state the following:

1-A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2-A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3-A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Other authors working in Asimov’s fictional universe have adopted them, and references (often parodic) appear throughout science fiction and in other genres. A typical robot before Asimov’s Laws, seen in a Superman cartoon. Asimov’s First Law would prohibit this robot from attacking humans Before Asimov, the majority of “artificial intelligences” in fiction followed the ‘Frankenstein’ pattern, one that Asimov found unbearably tedious: …one of the stock plots of science fiction was… robots were created and destroyed by their creator. Knowledge has its dangers, yes, but is the response to be a retreat from knowledge? Or is knowledge to be used as itself a barrier to the dangers it brings? With all this in mind I began, in 1940, to write robot stories of my own but robot stories of a new variety. Never, never, was one of my robots to turn stupidly on his creator for no purpose but to demonstrate, for one more weary time, the crime and punishment of Faust. This was not an inviolable rule. In December 1938, Lester del Rey published “Helen O’Loy”, the story of a robot so like a person she falls in love and becomes her creator’s ideal wife. The next month, Otto Binder published a short story, “I, Robot”, featuring a sympathetic robot named Adam Link, a misunderstood creature motivated by love and honor. This was the first of a series of ten stories; the next year, “Adam Link’s Vengeance” (1940) featured Adam thinking, “A robot must never kill a human, of his own free will.” On 7 May 1939, Asimov attended a meeting of the Queens Science Fiction Society, where he met Binder, whose story Asimov had admired. Three days later, Asimov began writing “my own story of a sympathetic and noble robot”, his 14th story. Thirteen days later, he took “Robbie” to John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding Science-Fiction. Campbell rejected it, claiming that it bore too strong a resemblance to del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy”. Frederik Pohl, editor of Astonishing Stories magazine, published “Robbie” in that periodical the following year. Asimov attributes the Laws to John W. Campbell from a conversation that took place on 23 December 1940. However, Campbell claimed that Asimov had the Laws already in his mind, and they simply needed to be stated explicitly. Several years later, Asimov’s friend Randall Garrett attributed the Laws to a symbiotic partnership between the two men, a suggestion that Asimov adopted enthusiastically. According to his autobiographical writings, Asimov included the First Law’s “inaction” clause because of Arthur Hugh Clough’s poem “The Latest Decalogue” which includes the satirical lines “Thou shalt not kill, but needst not strive / officiously to keep alive”. Although Asimov pins the Laws’ creation on one date, their appearance in his literature happened over a period. He wrote two robot stories with no explicit mention of the Laws, “Robbie” and “Reason”. He assumed, however, that robots would have certain inherent safeguards. “Liar!”, his third robot story, makes the first mention of the First Law but not the other two. All three laws finally appeared together in “Runaround”. When these stories and several others were compiled in the anthology I, Robot, “Reason” and “Robbie” were updated to acknowledge all Three Laws, though the material Asimov added to “Reason” is not entirely consistent with the Laws as he described them elsewhere. In particular, the idea of a robot protecting human lives when it does not believe those humans truly exist is at odds with Elijah Baley’s reasoning, described below. During the 1950s, Asimov wrote a series of science fiction novels expressly intended for young-adult audiences. Originally, his publisher expected that the novels could be adapted into a long-running television series, something like The Lone Ranger had been for radio. Fearing that his stories would be adapted into the “uniformly awful” programming he saw flooding the television channels, he decided to publish the Lucky Starr books under the pseudonym “Paul French”. When plans for the television series fell through, Asimov decided to abandon the pretence; he brought the Laws into Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter, “which was a dead giveaway to Paul French’s identity for even the most casual reader”. In his short story “Evidence”, Asimov lets his recurring character Dr. Susan Calvin expound a moral basis behind the Laws. Calvin points out that human beings are typically expected to refrain from harming other human beings (except in times of extreme duress like war, or to save a greater number). This is equivalent to a robot’s First Law. Likewise, according to Calvin, society expects individuals to obey instructions from recognized authorities: doctors, teachers and so forth, which equals the Second Law of Robotics. Finally, humans are typically expected to avoid harming themselves, which is the Third Law for a robot. The plot of “Evidence” revolves around the question of telling a human being apart from a robot specially constructed to appear human; Calvin reasons that if such an individual obeys the Laws, he may be a robot or simply “a very good man”. Another character then asks Calvin if robots are then very different from human beings after all. She replies, “Worlds different. Robots are essentially decent.” In a later essay, Asimov points out that analogues of the Laws are implicit in the design of almost all tools:
- A tool must be safe to use. (hammers have handles, screwdrivers have hilts)
- A tool must perform its function efficiently unless this would harm the user.
- A tool must remain intact during its use unless its destruction is required for its use or for safety.
In The Robots of Dawn Dr. Han Fastolfe stated that the entire planet of Aurora was an attempt to create a planet which obeys the Laws of Robotics. Asimov’s stories test his Laws in a wide variety of circumstances, proposing and rejecting modifications. Science fiction scholar James Gunn writes, “The Asimov robot stories as a whole may respond best to an analysis on this basis: the ambiguity in the Three Laws and the ways in which Asimov played twenty-nine variations upon a theme”. While the original set of Laws provided inspirations for many stories, from time to time Asimov introduced modified versions. As the following examples demonstrate, the Laws serve a conceptual function analogous to the Turing test, replacing fuzzy questions like “What is human?” with problems which admit more fruitful thinking. In “Little Lost Robot”, several NS-2 or “Nestor” robots are created with only part of the First Law. It reads: “ A robot may not harm a human being. ” This modification is motivated by a practical difficulty: robots have to work alongside human beings who are exposed to low doses of radiation. Because their positronic brains are highly sensitive to gamma rays, robots are rendered inoperable by doses reasonably safe for humans, and are being destroyed attempting to rescue the humans (who are in no actual danger, but “might forget to leave” the irradiated area within the exposure time limit). Removing the First Law’s “inaction” clause solves this problem, but creates the possibility of an even greater one: a robot could initiate an action which would harm a human knowing that it was capable of preventing the harm, and then decide not to do so. Asimov once added a “Zeroth Law” so named to continue the pattern of lower-numbered laws superseding in importance the higher-numbered laws stating that a robot must not merely act in the interests of individual humans, but of all humanity. The robotic character R. Daneel Olivaw was the first to give the Law a name, in the novel Robots and Empire; however, Susan Calvin articulates the concept in the short story “The Evitable Conflict”. In the final scenes of the novel Robots and Empire, R. Giskard Reventlov is the first robot to act according to the Zeroth Law, although it proves destructive to his positronic brain, as he is not certain whether his choice will turn out to be for the ultimate good of humanity or not. Giskard is telepathic, like the robot Herbie in the short story “Liar!”, and he comes to his understanding of the Zeroth Law through his understanding of a more subtle concept of “harm” than most robots can grasp. However, unlike Herbie, Giskard grasps the philosophical concept of the Zeroth Law, allowing him to harm individual human beings if he can do so in service to the abstract concept of humanity. The Zeroth Law is never programmed into Giskard’s brain, but instead is a rule he attempts to rationalize through pure metacognition; though he fails, he gives his successor, R. Daneel Olivaw, his telepathic abilities. Over the course of many thousand years, Daneel adapts himself to be able to fully obey the Zeroth Law. As Daneel formulates it, in the novels Foundation and Earth and Prelude to Foundation, the Zeroth Law reads: “ A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm. ” A condition stating that the Zeroth Law must not be broken was added to the original Laws. A translator incorporated the concept of the Zeroth Law into one of Asimov’s novels before Asimov himself made the Law explicit. Near the climax of The Caves of Steel, Elijah Baley makes a bitter comment to himself, thinking that the First Law forbids a robot from harming a human being, unless the robot is clever enough to rationalize that its actions are for the human’s long-term good (here meaning the specific human that must be harmed). In Jacques Brécard’s 1956 French translation, entitled Les Cavernes d’acier, Baley’s thoughts emerge in a slightly different way: “ Un robot ne doit faire aucun tort à un homme, à moins qu’il trouve un moyen de prouver qu’en fin de compte le tort qu’il aura causé profite à l’humanité en général! ” Translated back into English, this reads, “A robot may not harm a human being, unless he finds a way to prove that in the final analysis, the harm done would benefit humanity in general.”
Gaia, the planet with collective intelligence in the Foundation novels, adopted a law similar to the First as their philosophy:“ Gaia may not harm life or, through inaction, allow life to come to harm. ” Three times in his fiction-writing career, Asimov portrayed robots that disregard the Three-Law value system entirely, unlike the robots Daneel and Giskard, who attempt to augment it. The first case, a short-story entitled “First Law”, is often considered an insignificant “tall tale”or even apocryphal. On the other hand, the short story “Cal”, told by a first-person robot narrator, features a robot who disregards the Laws because he has found something far more important he wants to be a writer. Humorous, partly autobiographical, and unusually experimental in style, “Cal” has been regarded as one of Gold’ s strongest stories. The third is a short story entitled “Sally”, in which cars fitted with positronic brains are apparently able to harm and kill humans, disregarding the First Law. However, aside from the positronic brain concept, this story does not refer to other robot stories, and may not be set in the same continuity. The title story of the Robot Dreams collection portrays a robot, LVX-1 or “Elvex”, who enters a state of unconsciousness and dreams, thanks to the unusual fractal construction of his positronic brain. In his dream, the first two Laws are absent, and the Third Law reads, “A robot must protect its own existence.” Asimov took varying positions on whether the Laws were optional: although in his first writings they were simply carefully engineered safeguards, in later stories Asimov stated that they were an inalienable part of the mathematical foundation underlying the positronic brain. Without the basic theory of the Three Laws, the fictional scientists of Asimov’s universe would be unable to design a workable brain unit.
This is historically consistent: the occasions where roboticists modify the Laws generally occur early within the stories’ chronology, at a time when there is less existing work to be re-done. In “Little Lost Robot”, Susan Calvin considers modifying the Laws to be a terrible idea, but doable, while centuries later, Dr. Gerrigel in The Caves of Steel believes it to be impossible. Dr. Gerrigel uses the term “Asenion” to describe robots programmed with the Three Laws. The robots in Asimov’s stories, being Asenion robots, are incapable of knowingly violating the Three Laws, but in principle, a robot in science fiction or in the real world could be non-Asenion. (“Asenion” is a misspelling of the name Asimov, which was made by an editor of the magazine Planet Stories. Asimov used this obscure variation to insert himself into The Caves of Steel, in much the same way that Vladimir Nabokov appeared in Lolita, anagrammatically disguised as “Vivian Darkbloom”). As characters within the stories often point out, the Laws as they exist in a robot’s mind are not the written, verbal version usually quoted by humans, but abstract mathematical concepts upon which a robot’s entire developing consciousness is based. Thus, the Laws are comparable to basic human instincts of family or mating, and consequently are closer to forming the basis of a robot’s self-consciousness a sense that its entire purpose is based on serving humanity, obeying human orders and continuing its existence in this mode rather than arbitrary limitations circumscribing an otherwise independent mind. This concept is largely fuzzy and unclear in earlier stories depicting very rudimentary robots who are only programmed to comprehend basic physical tasks, with the Laws acting as an overarching safeguard, but by the era of The Caves of Steel, featuring robots with human or beyond-human intelligence, the Three Laws have become the underlying basic ethical worldview that determines the actions of all robots. The Solarians eventually created robots with the Laws as normal but with a warped meaning of “human”. Solarian robots are told that only people speaking with a Solarian accent are human. This way, their robots have no problem harming non-Solarian human beings (and are specifically programmed to do so). By the time period of Foundation and Earth it is revealed that the Solarians have, indeed, genetically modified themselves into a distinct species from humanity becoming hermaphroditic, telekinetic and containing biological organs capable of powering and controlling whole complexes of robots on their own. The robots of Solaria thus respected the Three Laws only regarding the “humans” of Solaria, rather than the normal humans of the rest of the Galaxy. It should be noted that only the most advanced robots were explicitly shown to have such limited definition of “human”, implying such programming is either difficult or too risky for the Solarians to enforce it en masse.
Asimov addresses the problem of humanoid robots (“androids” in later parlance) several times. The novel Robots and Empire and the short stories “Evidence” and “The Tercentenary Incident” describe robots crafted to fool people into believing that the robots are human. On the other hand, “The Bicentennial Man” and “That Thou art Mindful of Him” explore how the robots may change their interpretation of the Laws as they grow more sophisticated. (Gwendoline Butler writes in A Coffin for the Canary, “Perhaps we are robots. Robots acting out the last Law of Robotics… To tend towards the human.”) “That Thou art Mindful of Him”, which Asimov intended to be the “ultimate” probe into the Laws’ subtleties, finally uses the Three Laws to conjure up the very Frankenstein scenario they were invented to prevent. It takes as its concept the growing development of robots that mimic non-human living things, and are therefore given programs that mimic simple animal behaviors and do not require the Three Laws. The presence of a whole range of robotic life that serves the same purpose as organic life ends with two humanoid robots concluding that organic life is an unnecessary requirement for a truly logical and self-consistent definition of “humanity”, and that since they are the most advanced thinking beings on the planet, they are therefore the only two true humans alive and the Three Laws only apply to themselves. The story ends on a sinister note as the two robots enter hibernation and await a time when they conquer the Earth and subjugate biological humans to themselves, an outcome they consider an inevitable result of the “Three Laws of Humanics”. This story does not fit within the overall sweep of the Robot and Foundation series; if the George robots did take over Earth some time after the story closes, the later stories would be either redundant or impossible. Contradictions of this sort among Asimov’s fiction works have led scholars to regard the Robot stories as more like “the Scandinavian sagas or the Greek legends” than a unified whole. Indeed, Asimov describes “That Thou art Mindful of Him” and “Bicentennial Man” as two opposite, parallel futures for robots that obviate the Three Laws by robots coming to consider themselves to be humans one portraying this in a positive light with a robot joining human society, one portraying this in a negative light with robots supplanting humans. Both are to be considered alternatives to the possibility of a robot society that continues to be driven by the Three Laws as portrayed in the Foundation series. Indeed, in the novelization of “Bicentennial Man”, Positronic Man, Asimov and his cowriter Robert Silverberg imply that in the future where Andrew Martin exists, his influence causes humanity to abandon the idea of independent, sentient humanlike robots entirely, creating an utterly different future from that of Foundation. In the 1990s, Roger MacBride Allen wrote a trilogy set within Asimov’s fictional universe. Each title has the prefix “Isaac Asimov’s”, as Asimov approved Allen’s outline before his death. These three books (Caliban, Inferno and Utopia) introduce a new set of Laws. The so-called New Laws are similar to Asimov’s originals, with three substantial differences. The First Law is modified to remove the “inaction” clause (the same modification made in “Little Lost Robot”). The Second Law is modified to require cooperation instead of obedience. The Third Law is modified so it is no longer superseded by the Second (i.e., a “New Law” robot cannot be ordered to destroy itself). Finally, Allen adds a Fourth Law, which instructs the robot to do “whatever it likes” so long as this does not conflict with the first three Laws. The philosophy behind these changes is that New Law robots should be partners rather than slaves to humanity. According to the first book’s introduction, Allen devised the New Laws in discussion with Asimov himself. Allen’s two most fully characterized robots are Prospero, a wily New Law machine who excels in finding loopholes, and Caliban, an experimental robot programmed with no Laws at all. In the officially licensed Foundation sequels, Foundation’s Fear, Foundation and Chaos and Foundation’s Triumph (by Gregory Benford, Greg Bear and David Brin respectively), the future Galactic Empire is seen to be controlled by a conspiracy of humaniform robots who follow the Zeroth Law, led by R. Daneel Olivaw. The Laws of Robotics are portrayed as something akin to a human religion and referred to in the language of the Protestant Reformation, with the set of laws containing the Zeroth Law known as the “Giskardian Reformation” to the original “Calvinian Orthodoxy” of the Three Laws. Zeroth-Law robots under the control of R. Daneel Olivaw are seen continually struggling with First-Law robots who deny the existence of the Zeroth Law, promoting agendas different from Daneel’s. Some of these agendas are based on the first clause of the First Law (A robot may not injure a human being…) advocating strict non-interference in human politics to avoid unwittingly causing harm while others are based on the second clause (…or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm), claiming that robots should openly become a dictatorial government to protect humans from all potential conflict or disaster. Daneel also comes into conflict with a robot known as R. Lodovic Trema, whose positronic brain was infected by a rogue AI specifically, a simulation of the long-dead Voltaire consequently freeing Trema from the Three Laws. Trema comes to believe that humanity should be free to choose its own future. Furthermore, a small group of robots claims that the Zeroth Law of Robotics itself implies a higher Minus One Law of Robotics: “ A robot may not harm sentience or, through inaction, allow sentience to come to harm. ” They therefore claim that it is morally indefensible for Daneel to ruthlessly sacrifice robots and extraterrestrial sentient life for the benefit of humanity. None of these reinterpretations successfully displace Daneel’s Zeroth Law, though Foundation’s Triumph hints that these robotic factions remain active as fringe groups up to the time of the Foundation. These novels, since they take place in a far future dictated by Asimov to be free of obvious robot presence, follow Asimov in surmising that R. Daneel’s secret influence on history through the millennia has prevented the rediscovery of positronic brain technology or work on sophisticated intelligent machines, so as to make certain that the superior physical and intellectual power wielded by intelligent machines remains squarely in the possession of robots obedient to some form of the Three Laws. That R. Daneel is not entirely successful at this becomes clear in a brief period when scientists on Trantor develop tiktoks, simplistic programmable machines akin to real-life modern robots and therefore lacking the Three Laws. The robot conspirators see the Trantorian tiktoks as a massive threat to social stability, and their plan to eliminate the tiktok threat forms much of the plot of Foundation’s Fear. In Foundation’s Triumph, different robot factions interpret the Laws in a wide variety of ways, seemingly ringing every possible permutation upon the Laws’ ambiguities. Reviewer John Jenkins compared the dizzying complexity of splinter groups which results as akin to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, with its “Judean People’s Front”, “People’s Front of Judea”, “Judean Popular People’s Front” and so on. Mark W. Tiedemann’s three novels Mirage (2000), Chimera (2001) and Aurora (2002) also revolve around the Three Laws. Like the Asimov stories discussed above, Tiedemann’s work explores the implications of how the Laws define a “human being”. The climax of Aurora involves a cyborg threatening a group of Spacers, forcing the robotic characters to decide whether the Laws forbid them to harm cyborgs. The issue is further complicated by the cumulative genetic abnormalities that have accumulated in the Spacer population, which may imply that the Spacers are becoming a separate species. (The concluding scenes of Asimov’s Nemesis contain similar speculations, although that novel is only weakly connected to the Foundation series.) Tiedemann’s trilogy updates the Robot/Foundation saga in several other fashions as well. Set between The Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire, Tiedemann’s Robot Mystery novels include a greater use of virtual reality than Asimov’s stories, and also include more “Resident Intelligences”, robotic minds housed in computer mainframes rather than humanoid bodies. (One should not neglect Asimov’s own creations in these areas, such as the Solarian “viewing” technology and the Machines of “The Evitable Conflict”, originals that Tiedemann acknowledges. Aurora, for example, terms the Machines “the first RIs, really”.) In addition, the Robot Mystery series addresses the problem of nanotechnology: building a positronic brain capable of reproducing human cognitive processes requires a high degree of miniaturization, yet Asimov’s stories largely overlook the effects this miniaturization would have in other fields of technology. For example, the police department card-readers in The Caves of Steel have a capacity of only a few kilobytes per square centimeter of storage medium. Aurora, in particular, presents a sequence of historical developments which explain the lack of nanotechnology a partial retcon, in a sense, of Asimov’s timeline.

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