The Four Laws of Robotics

Jan 2nd, 2010 by adminadam in articles, home

With increasingly subtle moves, the players in Asimov’s epic Foundation and Earth are confronted with the daunting decision of whether to initiate an all-encompassing ethical framework, one which just might direct humanity into an acceptable future. The agents of change go unnamed for those who have yet to read it.

Dr. Isaac Asimov, in his Foundation series (also iRobot), first places these principles:

  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.

The Zeroth Law (0th) is added by another powerful mind (still some 20,000 years before the grand finale and the end of the series in Foundation and Earth):

  • A robot may not harm humanity, or by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
  • A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm, except when required to do so in order to prevent greater harm to humanity itself.
  • A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law or cause greater harm to humanity itself.
  • A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law or cause greater harm to humanity itself.

The Zeroth Law really puts everything into perspective, adding a new level of consideration and calculation; within this framework, every thought, word, and action for robot-kind needs exquisite justification. In Foundation and Earth, we see just how much extra crunching is necessary, evident in the many hardware updates Daneel Olivaw has to go through to keep up with the data produced by a galactic human civilization at a very tenuous place in history. So as not to spoil this epic 7-book series (by my count), I will just give you a recommended reading order, one which allows for ‘optimal absorption of foundational elements’ and also a thorough understanding of the elegantly intricate possible-future-history of humanity that Asimov has created. Here follows what I believe should trump every other sci-fi reading list you may currently have:

  1. Foundation (1951)
  2. Foundation and Empire (1952)
  3. Second Foundation (1953)
  4. Prelude to Foundation (1988)  [prequel #1]
  5. Forward the Foundation (1993)  [prequel #2]
  6. Foundation’s Edge (1982)  [epilogue #1]
  7. Foundation and Earth (1986)  [epilogue #2]

Recent Applications of the Three Laws of Robotics:

  • A modified version of Asimov’s Laws of Robotics has been submitted for approval in Japan to govern the actions of robots in the near-future.
  • Motorola has purchased security company 3LM so that it can provide better security for the Android Phone OS. 3LM stands for the 3 Laws of Mobility, being: 1) Protect the user from malicious code or content, 2) Protect the device itself by securing data and communications, and 3) Obey the user unless this would cause a security problem. [Sounds now like Google has purchased Motorola Mobility. Hopefully they will apply the 3LM in the best, most non-evil ways...]
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