Three Laws of Robotics
Posted by Remo Giuffré on
Designed to avoid a repeat of Dr Frankenstein’s big mistake
The Three Laws of Robotics have pervaded science fiction and popular culture, and are referred to in many books, films, and other media. More recently, they have impacted thought on the ethics of artificial intelligence. But, where do these so called “Laws” come from?
In his 1942 short story, Runaround (published in the magazine, Astounding Science Fiction), renowned Russian-born American science fiction author (and biochemist), Issac Asimov (1920 – 1992), set out what he described as “three fundamental Rules of Robotics – the three rules that are built most deeply in a robot’s positronic brain.”
“Positronic brain” was a term coined by Asimov. The positron (aka the antielectron) was a relatively recently discovered subatomic particle at the time Asimov was writing. (The technical details of how this robot consciousness would actually work are a little hazy.)
The rules had been implied in earlier Asimov stories but this was the first time they had been spelt out. The three rules, taken from the Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition, 2058 A.D, were:
A robot may not injure a human being, or through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.’
Hear them explained from the man himself HERE or at 14:50 in a subsequent and longer 1975 interview from a significantly more hirsute model of Isaac Asimov HERE.
In later work, Asimov introduced what he called the Zeroth Law (yes, it’s a word), preceding the first three rules in terms of priority, which stated:
0. “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”
In a 1975 interview, Asimov, said the laws were originally proposed to avoid the “Frankenstein motif” that was popular in science fiction writing at the time … stories about robots destroying their creators. Ouch!
Asimov’s Three Rules, and his writing in general, has been influential in pop culture, the tech industry, and amongst people thinking through the ethical, legal, and practical challenges presented by various forms of AI. Alternatives and modifications have been proposed to address the rules’ limitations and ambiguities. How would you program the rules, written by Asimov in English, into a language understandable by machines? One update to the Rules has been offered by US legal scholar, Frank Pasquale (2020). Rule One of his New Laws of Robotics states that “robotic systems and AI should complement professionals, not replace them”.
Ideas from science fiction still make appearances in today’s thinking about the possibilities of technology. The idea of a “metaverse”, a concept being championed by Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and others was introduced by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 science fiction novel, Snow Crash.
And in 2017 Australia’s then Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel gave a speech, titled “Science fiction for leaders”, to participants in an ethical leadership program. He made the case for reading good science fiction, arguing that it “carves out a space for the future in our minds”.
As a concluding treat, listen HERE to New Zealand band Flight of the Conchords describe a time in the “distant future” where the robots have dared to break a couple of these key rules. Enjoy.
Wikipedia Reference: Three Laws of Robotics (Text) CC BY-SA
Other References: The New Laws of Robotics by Frank Pasquale
1. Three Laws of Robotics
2. Isaac Asimov, 1985. Image: Yousuf Karsh.
3. Theatrical Poster for the Film Forbidden Planet featuring Robby the Robot
4. The Terminator. Also known as a Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 or the T-800 from the Terminator Film, 1984.
5. Will Smith in I, Robot (2004) Photo by Digital Domain. © 2004 Twentieth Century Fox.
6. Interview With Isaac Asimov, 1975. US Information Agency (1982 - 10/01/1999)
7. Frankenstein's Monster. Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster in Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
8. Flight of the Conchords, Robots ℗ 2008 Sub Pop Records. Released on: 22 April 2008
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i wish these same laws were incorporated into corporate law – just imagine what the world would be like now if corporations also had to protect human life!
gun violence? global warming? child care?
In the Q&A after this final 2021 BBC Reith Lecture, computer scientist Stuart Russell, shared this anecdote ‘at one point the EU Parliament debated whether Asimov’s Three Laws, which were devised by Isaac Asimov to produce interesting storylines for science fiction, they were debating whether to actually enshrine those in EU law. Fortunately, we nipped that one in the bud..’
An interesting conversation about science fiction on the latest ep. of Paris Marx’s podcast, ‘Tech Won’t Save Us’. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/silicon-valley-doesnt-get-science-fiction-w-annalee-newitz/id1507621076?i=1000545898910