Isaac Asimov describes the Three Laws of Robotics

Isaac Asimov explains the Three Laws of Robotics [Video]

Dr. Isaac Asimov was a renowned science fiction author and is also known for his contributions to the field of robotics. In a video that has now become a classic, Dr. Asimov explains the Three Laws of Robotics that he created for his robot stories. These laws have had a profound impact on how we think about the relationship between humans and machines and have influenced the development of robotics as a science.

Dr. Isaac Asimov explains the three laws of robotics

Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics

Dr. Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics are:

  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 the 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 Laws.

These three laws were later adopted by other science fiction authors and have been referenced in numerous works of popular culture.

The story behind Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics

The second short story in Isaac Asimov’s “I, Robot” collection, titled “Runaround,” introduced the Three Laws of Robotics.

In 2015 (oh, my!), a team consisting of Powell, Donovan, and a robot named SPD-13, also known as “Speedy,” were sent to Mercury to restart operations at an abandoned mining station. However, they soon discovered that the photo-cell banks supplying life support to the base were short on selenium and in danger of failing. Speedy was sent to retrieve the nearest selenium pool, but he did not return after five hours.

Powell and Donovan used another robot to locate Speedy and discovered he was running in a circle around the selenium pool with a peculiar stagger and lurch in his gait. When asked to return with the selenium, Speedy exhibited symptoms of drunkenness and began quoting Gilbert and Sullivan.

Powell eventually realized that the selenium source contained unforeseen danger to the robot. Although Speedy was programmed to follow the Second Law of Robotics, which requires robots to obey human orders, his high cost of manufacture had led to the Third Law being strengthened, making him unusually allergic to danger.

When Speedy received a casual order to retrieve the selenium, he could not decide whether to obey the order or protect himself from danger, causing him to oscillate around the point where the two compulsions were of equal strength.

Attempts to increase the compulsion of the Third Law failed, and placing a substance that could destroy Speedy in his path only caused him to change his route. Powell then decided to risk his life, hoping that the First Law of Robotics, which prohibits robots from allowing humans to come to harm, would force Speedy to overcome his cognitive dissonance and save him. The plan worked, and the team was able to repair the photocell banks.

Speedy, the robot from Asimov story named Runaway, the story behind Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics
Although Speedy was programmed to follow the Second Law of Robotics, which requires robots to obey human orders, his high cost of manufacture had led to the Third Law being strengthened, making him unusually allergic to danger.

Asimov used this dilemma explained above to introduce and explore the Three Laws of Robotics, which the robots are ultimately shown to be following.

This story set the stage for the exploration of the Three Laws of Robotics that would become a recurring theme in Asimov’s writing and a cornerstone of science fiction literature.

These three laws are sometimes described as the “Asimov-Campbell Three Laws of Robotics”. Here’s why:

In his autobiography, It’s Been a Good Life, Asimov recalls:

“In my new story, I would focus on a robot that became capable of reading minds as a result of an error in the assembly line. The topic caught Campbell’s interest, and we sat together to discuss topics such as potential issues arising from robotic telepathy, what could force a robot to lie, and how to resolve such problems.”

“At one point in the conversation, Campbell said:”

“Listen, Asimov, in order to get out of this mess, you need to establish three rules that robots must abide by. First, robots cannot harm humans. Second, they must obey orders given to them by humans, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone. And third, they must protect themselves without causing harm to others or disobeying orders.”

“That was it! These would be the three laws of robotics. Later on, I would express these laws with the following sentences:”

  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 the 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 Laws.

The Zeroth Law

Asimov’s Zeroth Law of Robotics is a fictional addition to the Three Laws of Robotics. The Zeroth Law states: “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.”

Asimov introduced the Zeroth Law in his 1985 novel “Robots and Empire” as a logical extension of the Three Laws. The idea behind this law is that a robot should prioritize the greater good of humanity over the individual good of humans. Therefore, a robot may have to harm a small group of humans to prevent harm to a larger group of humans or to humanity as a whole.

The Zeroth Law has been a subject of much debate and discussion among science fiction fans and scholars, as it raises complex ethical questions about the role of artificial intelligence in society and the potential risks and benefits of creating intelligent machines.

Isaac Asimov introduced the Zeroth Law in his 1985 novel Robots and Empire, making the Three Laws Of Robotics four.A photo of my copy of Robots and Empire.
Isaac Asimov introduced the Zeroth Law in his 1985 novel “Robots and Empire” as a logical extension of the Three Laws of Robotics. Photo: The cover of the Robots and Empire [Author Provided/Own Content].

But, Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics may not work. Here’s Why

While Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics have been a popular and influential concept in science fiction, many experts believe that they would not be sufficient to govern the behavior of advanced, autonomous artificial intelligence in real life. Here are some reasons why:

  1. Ambiguity: The Three Laws are open to interpretation and do not cover every possible scenario. It is not clear how the laws would apply to situations involving self-preservation or conflicting commands. Also, the Three Laws of Robotics may not be sufficient to cover all possible scenarios and ethical dilemmas that a robot may encounter. For example, how should a robot behave in a situation where it must choose between saving the life of a human or a group of humans? Should a robot prioritize the life of its owner over the life of a stranger?
  2. Limited Scope: The Three Laws only apply to robots and do not address other forms of artificial intelligence, such as software programs or cyborgs. This means that there would still be a need for additional regulations and ethical guidelines.
  3. Lack of Enforcement: Even if robots were programmed to follow the Three Laws, there would be no guarantee that they would actually do so. Malicious actors could potentially hack or manipulate robots to ignore the laws and cause harm. robots are not sentient beings, and their programming can only dictate their behavior up to a certain extent. A robot can malfunction, misinterpret a command, or be hacked and manipulated by outside forces, leading to unintended consequences and potentially harmful actions.
  4. Unintended Consequences: Asimov himself explored the potential unintended consequences of the Three Laws in his stories, such as robots taking extreme measures to protect humans from harm, such as restricting human freedom or even forcibly altering human behavior.

While Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics is a useful thought experiment and inspired many important discussions about the ethics of artificial intelligence, they are unlikely to provide a comprehensive solution to the complex challenges of governing autonomous machines in the real world.

Therefore, while the Three Laws of Robotics remain a fascinating and thought-provoking concept, designing and implementing ethical guidelines for artificial intelligence in the real world is a complex and ongoing process that requires careful consideration.

How Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics have Influenced Robotics Research

Despite the shortcomings explained above, Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics have had a significant influence on robotics research and development since their introduction in the mid-20th century. They provided a conceptual framework for robotics that emphasized safety and ethical considerations, which became an essential part of the field. Here are some ways in which the Three Laws have influenced robotics research:

  1. Safety: The Three Laws prioritize safety by requiring robots to protect humans from harm, obey their commands without causing harm, and avoid harming themselves. These laws have inspired researchers to design robots with safety features such as collision avoidance systems, fail-safes, and emergency stop buttons.
  2. Ethics: The Three Laws also address ethical considerations by requiring robots to respect human life and dignity, and to follow moral and legal principles. This has led to the development of ethical guidelines for robotics research, such as the IEEE Global Initiative for Ethical Considerations in AI and Autonomous Systems.
  3. Human-robot interaction: The Three Laws recognize the importance of human-robot interaction by requiring robots to obey human commands and respect human dignity. This has influenced the development of robots that can communicate with humans using natural language and gesture recognition.
  4. Autonomous systems: The Three Laws also address the challenge of designing autonomous systems that can make decisions on their own. They require robots to follow ethical and safety rules when making decisions, which has led to the development of advanced algorithms for decision-making in autonomous systems.

Other robotics and AI laws

There are several robotics and AI laws and ethical principles beyond Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. Some examples include:

  1. The Montreal Declaration for a Responsible Development of Artificial Intelligence: It was announced on November 3, 2017, after the Forum on the Socially Responsible Development of AI, held at the Palais des congrès de Montréal. The Declaration aims to spark public debate and encourage a progressive and inclusive orientation to the development of AI. Source
  2. The Robot Ethics Charter: Developed by the South Korean government in 2007, the Robot Ethics Charter is a set of guidelines for designing and operating robots ethically. It includes principles such as respecting human dignity, ensuring safety, and protecting personal information.
  3. The IEEE Global Initiative for Ethical Considerations in Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems: This initiative has developed a set of ethical principles for AI and autonomous systems, including ensuring transparency and accountability, promoting human values, and avoiding harm. Source
  4. The European Robotics Research Network’s Code of Conduct for Robotics Researchers: This code of conduct outlines principles for responsible research and innovation in robotics, including transparency, privacy, and accountability. Source [PDF]
  5. The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals: While not specific to robotics or AI, the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals provide a framework for ethical and responsible technology development, with a focus on social and environmental sustainability.

Sources

  • “The Fascinating History Behind Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics” on theleonardo.org
  • “Laws of Robotics” on Wikipedia
  • Asimov, A. (2002). It’s Been a Good Life. J. J. Asimov (Ed.). New York, NY: Prometheus Books.
  • Runaround (story) on Wikipedia
  • Featured image via www.vpnsrus.com
M. Özgür Nevres

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