Robotic laws for real?

Dr Isaac Asimov died in 1992, but before he did, he wrote or edited over 500 books, included amongst them some of the finest science fiction every put to paper. His approach to science fiction was rational and realistic, asking clever “what if” type questions and then making realistic characters react realistically around the situations those questions provoked.


One of his most interesting contributions to science fiction were the three laws of robotics which first appeared in a short story called Runaround in 1942. Asimov wanted to write stories about robots, but he was mostly interested in how real human beings would interact with advanced robots – how would they treat them? What would happen if the robots acquired human characteristics over time? How could mankind keep robotic slaves safely subdued to avoid creating a new race that might one day decide it didn’t like having an off button?

So Asimov thought about these issues and came up with his famous three laws of robotics. These state:

  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 orders given 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.

He then wrote an excellent series of stories, collected in the book I, Robot which got mangled by Hollywood a few years ago. Anyway, why am I blogging about this today? Well, Here’s the first paragraph of a story on the BBC website this evening:

An ethical code to prevent humans abusing robots, and vice versa, is being drawn up by South Korea. The Robot Ethics Charter will cover standards for users and manufacturers and will be released later in 2007. It is being put together by a five member team of experts that includes futurists and a science fiction writer.

And . . .

“In the 21st Century humanity will coexist with the first alien intelligence we have ever come into contact with – robots. It will be an event rich in ethical, social and economic problems.”

Seriously. Check it out at Sounds nuts, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s not as mad as it might sound. This is Fujitsu’s newest service robot, and it’s not a prop.



It’s called Enon, and is an “advanced practical-use service robot that can assist in such tasks as providing guidance, escorting guests, transporting objects, and security patrolling,” according to its makers. Personally, I think they’re wasting their time – Asimov had this all figured out 50 years ago.

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