Tag Archives: three laws of robotics

Asimov and Channel 4’s ‘Humans’

My wife and I have been happily enjoying the Channel 4 program Humans. I have no idea whether or not it will air in Canada and the US, but I hope so. This is a show about an alternate present where human society is fully integrated with androids (‘synths’), telling the story of one family in particular that purchases a synth named Anita who shows some oddities.

The show has some very direct Asimov referencing, specifically citing ‘Asimov Protocols’, with which all synths are programmed. I’ve mentioned them here before, but these are the Three Laws of Robotics from Asimov’s famous robot stories:

  1. A robot may not harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by a human being, except where this contravenes the First Law.
  3. A robot must preserve its own existence except where this comes into conflict with the First or Second Law.

After watching the second episode of humans, I decided to read I, Robot, Asimov’s 1950 collection of several of his 1940s robot stories. These stories tend to focus on the Three Laws and how things could go wrong (or right) depending on orders given to robots in relation to the laws — as well as how roboticists might reprogram robots with stronger or weaker applications of the Three Laws to make them more useful in different situations; how might these situations play out?

The first story in I, Robot is called ‘Robbie’. In this tale, a mother who doesn’t like her daughter’s robot nanny, the titular ‘Robbie’, has the robot sent back. The daughter pines away for her robot for a long time until the family decides to go on vacation to New York. There, the young girl thinks she will be able to find Robbie. Part of the trip — organised by the father who didn’t think they ought to have sent Robbie away in the first place — was a visit to a robot factory. There, the daughter saw Robbie in a construction area and ran to meet him. A heavy piece of machinery almost ran her over, but Robbie saw the danger and intervened in time, saving her life. Robbie got to go home.

In Humans, the mother of the main family we follow is concerned about their synth, Anita. Anita acts strangely, doing things like looking at the moon at night, or acting afraid sometimes. There is suspicion that she took the youngest child, Sophie, for a late-night walk one of her first nights there. The mother never wanted a synth in the first place, so in Episode 3 she decides that she’s had enough of Anita’s ongoing bizarre, too-human behaviour and goes to return her. Toby, the son, becomes frantic at this (he has a crush on Anita), and tries to stop her. As he cycles along, he is almost hit by a car, but Anita sees him approaching, leaps from her own vehicle and saves Toby’s life. Anita stays.

I’m sure you can see the parallels.

I wonder if I would see more parallels, besides the Asimov Protocols and ‘Robbie’, if I had a stronger acquaintance with the robot stories. I am quite pleased with this use of literary science fiction on a television series that is asking a lot of the philosophical, psychological, and anthropological questions that the existence of androids and true A.I. would raise.

Movies that would be different with the Three Laws of Robotics

First, so you know what’s going on, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:

  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.

These laws were developed in Asimov’s various robot stories and novels as a way of protecting humanity from the Frankenstein complex. The laws are so thoroughly encoded into the positronic brain that an Asimovian robot would cease to function were it to break one of the laws.

The thought came to me while watching Elysium that none of the action of the film would have happened with the Three Laws — the robot cop wouldn’t have been able to use force against Matt Damon’s character, who would thence not be irrated, and thus never invade Elysium. Boom. Done.

What other films would be affected by the Three Laws of Robotics? Obviously robots built by aliens, such as Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still, don’t count.

Well, straightaway, obviously no Terminator, Matrix, Blade Runner, orĀ Battlestar Galactica or any other film/TV series wherein robots are the antagonists. The Three Laws are meant to prevent precisely those films.

Alien would only be slightly different. Ash would have to be replaced by a human who, for some diabolical reasoning or bent in his psychology, was willing to do what Weyland Industries wanted. Similarly, then, for Michael Fassbender’s robot in Prometheus. It is plausible to use a human being in these two cases.

Star Wars would lack the interrogation droid, but I’m pretty sure people could have given Princess Leia needles instead. And the droid army in Phantom Menace was utterly useless, anyway; the Trade Federation would have done better to hire mercs or something that can’t be taken down by a power failure. However, the fact that their actions in helping run small fighters kill ‘human’ life, programming R2 units and their ilk with the Three Laws would make them unserviceable in the Rebel fleet.

The auto-pilot in Wall-E would not have suppressed the information of Earth’s habitability brought back by EVE and they would have gone straight home.

Do mutants count as human? The Sentinals in X-Men: Days of Future Past are designed precisely to hunt down mutants, although they do turn on human sympathisers and potential parents of mutants. I wonder.

These are all I can think of. Of course, the robot brutality in Elysium is of interest because the robots can only harm or even arrest non-citizens of Elysium. So there is an element of the Three Laws as applied only to the wealthy in that case. So even foolproof programming can lead to problems for the fools…