Scifi Fundamentals: I, Robot

The three laws of robotics, when expressed in spoken or written English rather than mathematics, are as follows:

  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.

Once upon a time, these were almost universally known by scifi geeks as a cornerstone of AI theory. But why are they important and why should you want to read the stories about them?

Welcome to a new segment for Wednesdays which I’m calling Scifi Foundations, it will reoccur whenever I have something to add to it.

Scifi is a young genre, with the very earliest scifi story generally being attributed to Edgar Allen Poe and only really coming into vogue about a hundred years ago. As such, foundational questions that the genre has addressed have not been as thoroughly examined as they have for other genres. There is no scifi equivalent to the hero’s journey, for example. But there are some core works that put forward ideas that are at the very heart of the genre and, in my opinion, ideas that have been somewhat forgotten over the years as authors try to innovate and make new stories. Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are at or near the top of my list of such forgotten concepts.

I, Robot is an important foundation for anyone who writes fiction that includes a strong AI if for no other reason than the fact that it’s a good illustration of the principles that form the core of interesting stories about them. The three laws of robotics are simple but the whole purpose of the stories collected in I, Robot is to illustrate the kinds of difficulties even simple “laws” present when dealing with a computer. Probably the most important rule to keep in mind is repeated more than once, that a computer is entirely logical but never reasonable.

Most of the stories in the first two thirds of the book feature problems that result from robots applying the laws in entirely logical ways that result in insane behavior. The point was less to demonstrate how simple it would be to create moral AI and more to demonstrate how very difficult morality is for anyone, relying strictly on logic fails to take into account things like intent, outcome and purpose in laws. In particular, the case of the robot telepath and the robot with the flawed First Law both illustrate both the importance of understanding purpose, something logic cannot do, and the shortcomings of a strict reading of the laws.

Asimov’s careful examination of these concepts is a very important starting point for any writer who wants to examine these aspects of AI in further depth. Unfortunately, most people who write AI in this day and age tend to pattern their work after the last portion of the book, or more likely after Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s at this point in the progression of I, Robot‘s short stories that Asimov departs from his original, highly logical approach to the three laws and decides that AI will simply become capable of abstract thought at some point.

This leads to robots assuming a fourth law of robotics, a Law Zero, that forces them to place the good of humanity above the good of individual human beings and allows them to override the First Law if harm to a specific human being will lead to the greater good of the species. This part of the book feels largely like a cop-out, because it allows robots to break the rules without allowing the reader to follow along with the logic. Yes, we know the actions the robots are taking supposedly benefit humanity as a whole but not how the robot arrived at that conclusion. Or, for that matter, how the robot arrived at it’s definitions of humanity or what is good for it, questions that even the best philosophers, theologians and artists still struggle with today.

In the end, I, Robot is a case study in the use of AI in science fiction. It presents us with interesting problems and an understanding of the limitations our technology has in solving them, but it also worships some inexplicable future technology as a savior, set to free us from all that hinders us if only we trust in it. If you plan to write about artificial intelligence, studying I, Robot for the good and the bad is one of the best places to start.


One response to “Scifi Fundamentals: I, Robot

  1. I really like your analysis of how Asimov uses AI, and especially how the ending of the book tries to grapple with its previous setup. It does seem like most other AI stories misinterpret a lot of Asimov’s intent. But you may be right that his final story jumps to wild places without really earning it. Very interesting.

    Check out my review of the book if you’d like:


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