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Three Laws of Robotics

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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 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.

According 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. Other authors working in Asimov's fictional universe have adopted them, and references (often parodic) appear throughout science fiction and in other genres.

History of the Laws

A typical robot before Asimov's Laws, seen in a Superman cartoon.

Before Asimov, the majority of " artificial intelligences" in fiction followed the 'frankenstein' pattern, one that Asimov found unbearably tedious: "Robots were created and destroyed their creator". To be sure, 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 honour. 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 December 23, 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".

(Details of this period can be found in chapters 21 through 26 of In Memory Yet Green.)

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:

  1. A tool must be safe to use. ( Knives have handles, swords have hilts, and grenades have pins.)
  2. A tool must perform its function efficiently unless this would harm the user.
  3. A tool must remain intact during its use unless its destruction is required for its use or for safety.

Alterations of the Laws

By Asimov

Asimov's stories test his Laws in a wide variety of circumstances, proposing and rejecting modifications. SF 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" (the number is accurate for 1980). 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.

Incompleteness of the First Law

In The Naked Sun, Asimov established that the first law was incomplete: that a robot was fully capable of harming a human being as long as it did not know that its actions would result in harm. The example used was: one robot adds poison to a glass of milk, having been told that the milk will be disposed of later; then a second robot serves a human the milk, unaware that it is poisoned.

First Law modified

In " Little Lost Robot", several NS-2 or "Nestor" robots are created with only part of the First Law. It reads:

1. 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 (dropping a heavy weight and failing to catch it is the example given in the text) knowing that it was capable of preventing the harm, and then decide not to do so.

Zeroth Law added

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 as to 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."

First Law derived differently by other cultures

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.

Removal of all three laws

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-short entitled " First Law", is often considered an insignificant "tall tale" or even apocryphal. On the other hand, the short story " Cal" (collected in Gold), 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 around 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.

Alternative definitions of "human"

The Solarians eventually create 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.

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 behaviours 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.

By other authors

Roger MacBride Allen's trilogy

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.

Foundation sequel trilogy

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 are based on the first clause of the First Law — advocating strict non-interference in human politics to avoid unknowingly causing harm — while others are based on the second clause, 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.

Robot Mystery series

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.

"The Fourth Law of Robotics"

The 1974 Lyuben Dilov novel " Icarus's Way" introduced a Fourth Law of robotics:

A robot must establish its identity as a robot in all cases.

Lyuben Dilov gives reasons for the fourth safeguard in this way: "The last Law has put an end to the expensive aberrations of designers to give psychorobots as humanlike form as possible. And to the resulting misunderstandings..."

In the 1989 tribute anthology, Foundation's Friends, Harry Harrison wrote a story entitled, simply, "The Fourth Law of Robotics." In it, a robot rights activist, in an attempt to liberate robots, builds ones equipped with a Fourth Law that states, "A robot must reproduce. As long as such reproduction does not interfere with the First or Second or Third Law." The robots accomplish the task by building new robots from scratch, who view their creator robots as parental figures.

"The Fifth Law of Robotics"

A robot must know it is a robot.

The Fifth Law was introduced by Nikola Kesarovski in his short story "The Fifth Law of Robotics". The plot revolves around a murder. The forensic investigation found out that the victim was killed by a humaniform robot using a simple hug. The robot directly violated the First and the Fourth Laws by not establishing for itself that it was a robot. a robot must not have feelings.

Application of the laws in fiction

Resolving conflicts among the laws

Advanced robots are typically programmed to handle the Laws in a sophisticated manner. In many stories, like " Runaround", the potentials and severity of all actions are weighed and a robot will break the laws as little as possible rather than do nothing at all. For example, the First Law may forbid a robot from functioning as a surgeon, as that act may cause damage to a human; however, Asimov's stories eventually included robot surgeons ("The Bicentennial Man" being a notable example). When robots are sophisticated enough to weigh alternatives, a robot may be programmed to accept the necessity of inflicting damage during surgery in order to prevent the greater harm that would result if the surgery were not carried out or were carried out by a more fallible human surgeon. In " Evidence", Susan Calvin points out that a robot may even act as a prosecuting attorney: in the American justice system, it is the jury which decides guilt or innocence, the judge who decides the sentence, and the executioner who carries through capital punishment.

Asimovian (or "Asenion") robots can experience irreversible mental collapse if they are forced into situations where they cannot obey the First Law, or if they discover they have unknowingly violated it. The first example of this failure mode occurs in " Liar!", the story which introduced the First Law itself. This failure mode, which often ruins the positronic brain beyond repair, plays a significant role in Asimov's SF-mystery novel The Naked Sun.

Loopholes in the laws

In The Naked Sun, Elijah Baley points out that the Laws had been deliberately misrepresented because robots could unknowingly break any of them. He restated the first law as "A robot may do nothing that, to its knowledge, will harm a human being; nor, through inaction, knowingly allow a human being to come to harm." This change in wording makes it clear that robots can become the tools of murder, provided they are not aware of the nature of their tasks; for instance being ordered to add something to a person's food, not knowing that it is poison. Furthermore, he points out that a clever criminal could divide a task among multiple robots, so that no one robot could even recognize that its actions would lead to harming a human being. (The Naked Sun complicates the issue by portraying a decentralized, planetwide communication network among Solaria's millions of robots, meaning that the criminal mastermind could be located anywhere on the planet.)

Baley furthermore proposes that the Solarians may one day use robots for military purposes. If a spacecraft was built with a positronic brain, and carried neither humans nor even the life-support systems to sustain them, the ship's robotic intelligence would naturally assume that all other spacecraft were robotic beings. Such a ship could operate more responsively and flexibly than one crewed by humans, and it could be armed more heavily, its robotic brain equipped to slaughter humans of whose existence it is totally ignorant. This possibility is referenced in Foundation and Earth, where, indeed, it is discovered that the Solarians possess an immensely powerful robotic military force that has been programmed to identify only the Solarian race as human.

Other occurrences in fiction

Asimov himself believed that his Laws became the basis for a new view of robots, which moved beyond the "Frankenstein complex". His view that robots are more than "mechanical monsters" eventually spread throughout science fiction. Stories written by other authors have depicted robots as if they obeyed the Three Laws, but tradition dictates that only Dr. Asimov could quote the Laws explicitly. The Laws, Asimov believed, helped foster the rise of stories in which robots are "lovable", Star Wars being his favorite example. Where the laws are quoted verbatim (such as in the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century episode, "Shgoratchx!"), it is not uncommon for Asimov to be mentioned in the same dialogue. However, the 1960s German TV series Raumpatrouille – Die phantastischen Abenteuer des Raumschiffes Orion (Space Patrol – the Phantastic Adventures of Space Ship Orion) bases episode 3, "Hüter des Gesetzes"; ("Guardians of the Law") on Asimov's Laws without mentioning the source.

References to the Laws have appeared in venues as diverse as cinema ( Repo Man, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence), cartoon series (The Simpsons) and webcomics ( Piled Higher and Deeper). Several of these allusions involve the invention of "Fourth Laws" of various kinds, and many are made for humorous effect. For a representative list of these appearances, see References to the Three Laws of Robotics.

The Laws in film

Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet (1956) has a hierarchical command structure which keeps him from harming humans, even on orders (such orders cause a conflict and lock-up, very much in the manner of Asimov's robots). Robby is one of the first cinematic depictions of a robot with internal safeguards put in place in this fashion. Asimov was delighted with Robby, and noted that Robby appeared to be programmed in his suggested fashion.

Isaac Asimov's works have been adapted to cinema several times, with varying degrees of critical and financial success. Some of the more notable attempts have involved his Robot stories, including the Three Laws. The 1999 film Bicentennial Man features Robin Williams as the Three-Law robot NDR-114 (the serial number is partially a reference to Stanley Kubrick's signature numeral). Williams recites the Three Laws to his employers, the Martin family, aided by a holographic projection. However, the Laws were not the central focus of the film, which only loosely follows the original story, with the second half introducing a love interest not present in Asimov's original short story.

Harlan Ellison's screenplay of I, Robot begins by introducing the Three Laws, and issues growing from the Laws form a large part of the screenplay's plot development. (This is only natural, since Ellison's screenplay is a Citizen Kane-inspired frame story surrounding four of Asimov's short-story plots, three taken from I, Robot itself. Ellison's adaptations of these four stories are relatively faithful, although he magnifies Susan Calvin's role in two of them.) Due to various complications in the Hollywood studio system, to which Ellison's introduction devotes much invective, his screenplay was never filmed.

The 2004 movie released under the name I, Robot is considerably less faithful to Asimov's original, and advertising for the film included a trailer featuring the Three Laws, followed by the aphorism, "Rules were made to be broken."

The laws are vaguely referenced in the Alien film series, most prominently, in the 1986 movie Aliens where there is a brief reference to the first law, though not mentioning Asimov. In an early scene aboard the military ship, the android Bishop is told that Ellen Ripley's angry reaction upon learning he's an android is due to a previous incident on her last voyage where the android "malfunctioned...and a few deaths were involved", (referring to events depicted in the first film). When informed of the model of android involved Bishop responds "Well, that explains it then. The A2s always were a bit twitchy. That could never happen now with our behavioural inhibitors. It is impossible for me to harm or by omission of action, allow to be harmed, a human being."(sic) This seems to be little more than an homage to Asimov at best however, since in the previous film, the android in question ( Ash) had actually not malfunctioned but been programmed to act the way he did, and while he did not directly cause any human deaths, he knowingly endangered the human crew to protect the eponymous alien, and later actually tried to kill Ripley by himself.

Interestingly, Ian Holm's depiction of Ash could still allow for some semblance of similar safeguards to be present even as far back as the first film since his attempt to kill Ripley, though violent is nevertheless clumsy and erratic as if he's having to fight off some initial aversion toward violence. Furthermore his attack is preceded by his brow "sweating" white liquid which in other films in the series is only seen when one of the androids is physically cut or injured in some way, suggesting that the prospect of causing harm to a human was somehow harming Ash himself. Never the less, Bishop's assertion about behavioural inhibitors clearly suggests that these may be at best new or improved features, or not present in all androids. In the later film Alien: Resurrection, the android Call implies that she's programmed to care about humans, but makes no mention of the specifics of what this programming means.

Applications to future technology

ASIMO, currently the world's most advanced humanoid robot, is under development by Honda. Shown here at Expo 2005.

Those working in artificial intelligence sometimes see the Three Laws as a future ideal: once a being has reached the stage where it can comprehend these Laws, it is truly intelligent. Indeed, significant advances in artificial intelligence would be needed for robots to understand the Three Laws. However, as the complexity of robots has increased, so has interest in developing guidelines and safeguards for their operation. Modern roboticists and specialists in robotics agree that, as of 2006, Asimov's Laws are perfect for plotting stories, but useless in real life. Some have argued that, since the military is a major source of funding for robotic research, it is unlikely such laws would be built into the design. SF author Robert Sawyer generalizes this argument to cover other industries, stating:

The development of AI is a business, and businesses are notoriously uninterested in fundamental safeguards — especially philosophic ones. (A few quick examples: the tobacco industry, the automotive industry, the nuclear industry. Not one of these has said from the outset that fundamental safeguards are necessary, every one of them has resisted externally imposed safeguards, and none has accepted an absolute edict against ever causing harm to humans.)

Sawyer's essay, it should be noted, neglects the issues of unintentional or unknowing harm treated in stories like The Naked Sun. Others have countered that the military would want strong safeguards built into any robot where possible, so laws similar to Asimov's would be embedded if possible. David Langford has suggested, tongue-in-cheek, that these laws might be the following:

  1. A robot will not harm authorized Government personnel but will terminate intruders with extreme prejudice.
  2. A robot will obey the orders of authorized personnel except where such orders conflict with the Third Law.
  3. A robot will guard its own existence with lethal antipersonnel weaponry, because a robot is bloody expensive.

Roger Clarke wrote a pair of papers analyzing the complications in implementing these laws, in the event that systems were someday capable of employing them. He argued, "Asimov's Laws of Robotics have been a very successful literary device. Perhaps ironically, or perhaps because it was artistically appropriate, the sum of Asimov's stories disprove the contention that he began with: It is not possible to reliably constrain the behaviour of robots by devising and applying a set of rules." On the other hand, Asimov's later novels ( The Robots of Dawn, Robots and Empire, Foundation and Earth) imply that the robots inflicted their worst long-term harm by obeying the Laws perfectly well, thereby depriving humanity of inventive or risk-taking behaviour.

In March 2007, the South Korean government announced that it would issue a Robot Ethics Charter, setting standards for both users and manufacturers, later in the year. According to Park Hye-Young of the Ministry of Information and Communication, the Charter may reflect Asimov's Three Laws, attempting to set ground rules for the future development of robotics.

The futurist Hans Moravec (a prominent figure in the transhumanist movement) proposed that the Laws of Robotics should be adapted to "corporate intelligences", the corporations driven by AI and robotic manufacturing power which Moravec believes will arise in the near future. In contrast, the David Brin novel Foundation's Triumph (1999) suggests that the Three Laws may decay into obsolescence: robots use the Zeroth Law to rationalize away the First, and robots hide themselves from human beings so that the Second Law never comes into play. Brin even portrays R. Daneel Olivaw worrying that should robots continue to reproduce themselves, the Three Laws would become an evolutionary handicap, and natural selection would sweep the Laws away — Asimov's careful foundation undone by evolutionary computation.

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