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On Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics
by Robert J. Sawyer
Copyright © 1991 and 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.
Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics
- A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a
human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where
such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence, except where such protection
would conflict with the First or Second Law.
People in the process of reading my novel
Golden Fleece keep saying to me, what about
Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics? I thought
they were guiding modern
Nope, they're not. First, remember, Asimov's "Laws" are hardly
laws in the sense that physical laws are laws; rather, they're
cute suggestions that made for some interesting puzzle-oriented
stories half a century ago. I honestly don't think they will be
applied to future computers or robots. We have lots of computers
and robots today and not one of them has even the rudiments of
the Three Laws built-in. It's extraordinarily easy for
"equipment failure" to result in human death, after all, in
direct violation of the First Law.
Asimov's Laws assume that we will create intelligent machines
full-blown out of nothing, and thus be able to impose across the
board a series of constraints. Well, that's not how it's happening.
Instead, we are getting closer to artificial intelligence by small
degrees and, as such, nobody is really implementing fundamental
Take Eliza, the first computer psychiatric program. There is
nothing in its logic to make sure that it doesn't harm the user
in an Asimovian sense, by, for instance, re-opening old mental
wounds with its probing. Now, we can argue that Eliza is way too
primitive to do any real harm, but then that means someone has to
say arbitrarily, okay, that attempt at AI requires no
safeguards but this attempt does. Who would that someone be?
The development of AI is a business, and businesses are
notoriously uninterested in fundamental safeguards
especially philosophic ones. (A few quick examples: the
tobacco industry, the automotive industry, the nuclear industry.
Not one of these has said from the outset that fundamental
safeguards are necessary, every one of them has resisted
externally imposed safeguards, and none have accepted an absolute
edict against ever causing harm to humans.)
Indeed, given that a huge amount of AI and robotics research is
underwritten by the military, it seems that there will never be a
general "law" against ever harming human beings. The whole
point of the exercise, at least from the funders' point of view,
is to specifically find ways to harm those human beings who
happen to be on "the other side."
We already live in a world in which Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics
have no validity, a world in which every single computer user is
exposed to radiation that is considered at least potentially
harmful, a world in which machines replace people in the
workplace all the time. (Asimov's First Law would prevent that:
taking away someone's job absolutely is harm in the Asimovian
sense, and therefore a "Three Laws" robot could never do
that, but, of course, real robots do it all the time.)
So, what does all this mean? Where's it all going? Ah, that I
answer at length in Golden Fleece.
More Good Reading
Rob's editorial from Science on Robot Ethics
Rob's interview with Isaac Asimov
Rob's thoughts about the future of artificial intelligence
A dialog on Ray Kurzweil's The Age of Spiritual Machines
On Bill Joy's "The Future Doesn't Need Us"
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