One of the many goals of this corner of the internet is to discuss some of the big names in the science fiction genre, and there are few names as big as Isaac Asimov. Recently, the idea of putting Foundation, his most famous series, on TV has been floated around. We’ll talk more about the Foundation series later, but for now lets talk about something that established Asimov in the field and influenced every writer of his generation, The Three Laws of Robotics:
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 Law.
(These appeared originally in the short story Runaround, attributed to the Handbook of Robotics in the 1950 book I, Robot)
The development of the Laws began in 1940 with the story of a robot called Robbie, whose loyalty and devotion were merely attributes that had been programmed into the brain of the machine. It was just the way he was made. From this tiny beginning Asimov created an entire genre of robotic mystery tale, where understanding the developing ‘rules’ of robotics and their short-comings would solve the ultimate mystery at the heart of each story.
After several years the notion of being made ‘just so’ evolved into the notion of fundamental laws and finally, in the aforementioned Runaround, articulated in the basic form that they have today. Asimov believed that they were what he would be most remembered for in the genre.
Taking a step back and viewing the larger picture here, we can see that Asimov wasn’t defining actual terms for programmers to program into computers. He was defining terms for a science fiction writer to use to develop stories—mostly with himself in mind as the writer. Many of the critiques that surface about the Three Laws miss that very point and end up attacking a strawman instead.
This hits upon one of the kinds of stories that dominate science fiction, this kind of mystery of technology. The central conceit is that humans and technology work together in strange, often counterintuitive, ways. There is a joke about a programmer being sent to the store by his wife and told to buy a loaf of bread, and if they have eggs, get a dozen. The programmer comes home with a dozen loaves of bread. In one sense many of Asimov’s stories follow these same lines of logic.
The real lesson to be learned here is that Robots can be rescued from their fate as Frankenstein’s monsters or rebellious servants that seemed common in early Science Fiction (and indeed is much more common today). That there is no such thing as the forbidden engineering or playing god with nature. Science fiction is not limited to the Golem or the fate of Prometheus.
As Asimov’s robots evolve through the stories and develop a greater understanding of the laws, this leads to some robots recognizing a law that supersedes the canonical Three. This 0th Law, if you will, regards the harm to all of humanity that may exist by becoming too reliant upon robots as servants. Here, Asimov falls prey to his own conceit.
His legacy has been to rescue the notion of robot servants from being simply the evil menace, the foul creation, or the background and setting for all the action. Robots had the opportunity to become real characters with needs and desires and goals—even if they were put there by a programmer.
If we have lovable robots in the genre, it started here.
Next time, The Foundation.