Isaac Asimov has a curious legacy. The man himself was a professor of Biochemistry, but his name is synonymous not with the biological, but with the mechanical, and more specifically the Robotic (a term he himself is responsible for coining). While he is undoubtedly a major figure in 20th century Science Fiction, this was only one aspect of a formidable and wide ranging body of work which stretched from children’s fantasy to authoritative journals on classical literature, theology, mathematics and physics.
Despite a brilliant career, however he has been afforded the dubious honour of being the man who gave us the modern image of The Robot. Not the automaton you’ll find on a production line; or the uncanny-valley dwelling Japanese Terrorbot that sits there staring at you until your soul shrinks, but the independently minded, often vaguely person-shaped, ambulatory learning A.I. You know; the one that doesn’t and has never actually existed in the real world? That one.
The irony that such a learned man, and indeed one-time vice chairman of MENSA should be best known in popular culture for a field of science which, though it has since become a reality, was complete fiction during most of his lifetime, was not lost on Asimov himself. He is arguably best known for his “Three Laws of Robotics” which are:
1) A robot may not injure a human or, by inaction allow a human being to come to harm
2) A robot must obey the orders given to it by a human being, 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 and second law
These laws and their interpretation formed the basis of his series of Positronic-brained Robot stories, which were afforded a particular significance because while they were not the first fictional works to feature artificial men (There are robots in literature as far back as “The Iliad”) they broke with the until-then prevalent tradition of cautionary tales about the malevolent unstable creation turning against its creator.
Instead they offered a more studious and philosophical approach to the concept, focusing on the implications and practicalities of a highly intelligent, physically powerful yet fundamentally servile artificial being. One with a cognitive reasoning that almost mimics free will but that is bound strictly by a hard-wired set of behavioural standards from which deviation is not possible.
The author himself was famously not particularly enamoured with the idea that his most celebrated contribution to the world at large was a set of speculative guidelines for such fictional technology, and it’s difficult not to sympathise; as he really was possessed of a remarkable scientific mind.
Nevertheless the three laws have made their mark on the public consciousness; often even in the form of academic and philisophical debate. Indeed it has been suggested that should the science of robotics ever reach the technological heights featured in Asimovs work, making their product “Three laws safe” might not be a bad idea. (and might have made the man who wrote those laws a little bit less red in the face about it)
His stories featured a notable lack of violence, at least on the part of the robots themselves. These were not action stories, which may explain why the Alex Proyas-directed “I Robot” drew a certain amount of criticism. The idea of robots subject to the 3 laws turning en-masse on humanity was fundamentally out of step with the books upon which the movie was (loosely) based.Tags: 3 laws of robotics, alien, bender, futurama, isaac asimov, robots, star trek, the borg, the terminator