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The Three Laws of Robot Design

Isaac Asimov (1920 - 1992) was a prolific popular science and science fiction writer who began his career in the "Golden Age" of SF. Some of his most famous works form the robot series of novels and stories. These introduced his famous robots with positronic brains and governed by Three Laws of Robotics.

What Are The Three Laws?

The Three Laws were introduced by Asimov explicitly in his 1942 short story "Runaround". They are a set of fundamental rules that are supposed to be "hard-wired" into the brain of every robot ever made. These rules are intended to ensure that robots remain the servants (some would say slaves) of mankind.

In the event of truly intelligent, autonomous robots ever being created then hopefully they would include such rules in their programming.

The 3 Laws are:

First Law
A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Second Law
A robot must obey orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

Third Law
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

At first glance these Laws would seem to simply be common sense made explicit. They seem to do everything necessary to ensure that robots cannot become a threat to humanity. In reality, of course, the situation is not so clear-cut.

Asimov himself made the ambiguity of the Laws the basis for many stories. There are also stories involving robots with deliberately or accidentally varied Laws. Having created the Laws, Asimov went to great lengths to try to push, bend and break them!

Just to take two simple ambiguities in the very first Law:

What constitutes "human being"? Does a foetus count as a human being? How would a robot created by a racist society define "humanity"? Etc, etc.

What constitutes "harm"? Does offending someone count as harm? Would a robot be obligated to stop a boxing match? Etc, etc.

The linguistic and cultural ambiguities are manifold, even before considering possible paradoxes.

The "Zeroth" Law

The "Zeroth Law" is less well known than the other three. It was added by Asimov in the novel Robots and Empire. The Zeroth Law "trumps" the other three:

Zeroth Law
A robot may not injure humanity or, through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

This Law introduced the concept of the "greater good" and, for the first time, allows a robot to deliberately kill a human being. As such it introduces to robots many of the most difficult ethical dilemmas that face mankind.

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