Three Laws of Robotics - History

History

Before Asimov began writing, the majority of artificial intelligence in fiction followed the Frankenstein pattern. Asimov found this unbearably tedious. He explained in 1964 that

... one of the stock plots of science fiction was ... robots were created and destroyed by their creator. Knowledge has its dangers, yes, but is the response to be a retreat from knowledge? Or is knowledge to be used as itself a barrier to the dangers it brings? With all this in mind I began, in 1940, to write robot stories of my own – but robot stories of a new variety. Never, never, was one of my robots to turn stupidly on his creator for no purpose but to demonstrate, for one more weary time, the crime and punishment of Faust.

This was not an inviolable rule. In December 1938 Lester del Rey published "Helen O'Loy" the story of a robot that is so much like a person she falls in love with her creator and becomes his ideal wife. The next month Ernest and Otto Binder published a short story "I, Robot" featuring a sympathetic robot named Adam Link who was misunderstood and motivated by love and honor. 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 the 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 Three Laws to John W. Campbell from a conversation that took place on 23 December 1940. Campbell claimed that Asimov had the Three Laws already in his mind and that 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".

Although Asimov pins the creation of the Three Laws on one particular 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 the Three Laws, though the material Asimov added to "Reason" is not entirely consistent with the Three 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, as 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 Asimov 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 Three Laws into Lucky Starr and the Moons of Jupiter, noting that this "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 Three 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) and this is equivalent to a robot's First Law. Likewise, according to Calvin, society expects individuals to obey instructions from recognized authorities such as 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 constructed to appear human – Calvin reasons that if such an individual obeys the Three Laws he may be a robot or simply "a very good man". Another character then asks Calvin if robots are 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 not be unsafe to use. Hammers have handles, screwdrivers have hilts.
  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.

In The Robots of Dawn, the third in the Robot series, Dr. Han Fastolfe states that the planet Aurora was an attempt to create an entire planet which obeys the Laws of Robotics.

Read more about this topic:  Three Laws Of Robotics

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