We, Robots: Isaac Asimov’s Robot “Laws” Revisited, by Kate Voss
2015 promises to be the “Year of the Robot.” Chappie, Ex Machina, and The Avengers: Age of Ultron are among the films that will see release this year that deal with robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). It’s interesting to reflect on how much has changed over the course of the past 75 years, in terms of both technology and popular entertainment. For everything that has changed, however, it is sort of remarkable how many modern science-fiction tropes can be traced back to science fiction’s “big three.” I refer, of course, to Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov.
Each writer made several predictions about what technology would mean for future generations. Clarke looked upon technology as a tool that could ultimately enrich society, if humans could only harness it intelligently. Heinlein saw robotic technology becoming an important component of future societies, but he expressed doubt that the world would ever see “Manlike robots with manlike reactions.”
Asimov, however, took the possibility of robots becoming fully autonomous seriously enough to establish a set of guidelines, lest things get out of hand down the line. These “Three Laws of Robotics” were introduced in 1942 in Asimov’s short story “Runaround” (which was ultimately included in the anthology I, Robot, published in 1950). Let’s refer back to Asimov’s laws for a moment:
“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.”
And there we can see, almost instantly, that these “laws” provided the foundation for countless science-fiction novels and films that have dealt with the complexity of humanity’s relationship with technology. What’s more: Asimov’s writings were consistent with what older psychoanalysts had written about “the uncanny,” in terms of the revulsion that people sometimes feel towards non-human entities that either look sort of like humans, or behave sort of like humans.
Clarke had approached this set of issues with automatons becoming too autonomous for our own good in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which featured HAL 9000, the central hub of the spaceship that also functioned as a supercomputer that could “speak” to the humans aboard the Discovery One. The story takes a macabre turn when the computer begins to make decisions autonomously, and begins systematically killing off the astronauts aboard, lest they deter HAL from completing the mission “he” was programmed to complete. This is clearly in dialogue with the concerns that Asimov put forth.
And while this concept had been explored in earlier films (notably Fritz Lang’s Metropolis), it was the big three and their contemporaries who began to discuss these issues in more concrete terms. Metropolis was superficially concerned with automata, but more deeply concerned with human beings forced to function like machinery to keep pace in the modern world.
And what is our criteria, in the modern age, when it comes down to discerning what technology is good and what is bad? How well do modern-day smart platforms comply with Asimov’s laws? Surely, there’s a case to be made for technology that is beneficial. But what about devices like smart meters that utility providers are starting to use throughout the world — devices which transmit a family’s personal data to anonymous third parties? Or, more menacingly still, drones that are engineered by the military to make the sort of decisions which no machine should be capable of making.
How has the tenor of these films changed over the decades? To what degree are these new robot films likely to echo science fiction classics from the ‘50s such as Forbidden Planet or The Day The Earth Stood Still that still show at late hours on novelty TV stations (click here for more info), and what may set contemporary robot films aside from their predecessors?
This writer can only speculate about what the differences might be, but in terms of similarities? The narrative element that will make contemporary robot movies like robot movies of the past is this: it’s not really about robots — it’s about people. In the case of some newer films (Chappie especially, based on its apparent premise), robots are the narrative device that’s used to examine inhumane tendencies within, not robots, but authentic, flesh-and-blood humans — and in that respect, the film could be very similar to cold war era science-fiction movies. It’s not about merely fearing robots — it’s also become about learning to cohabitate peacefully with robots, and it’s also become about humanity’s declining morals.
If we can’t stave off the robot revolution, let’s at least hope that we can preserve some meaningful element of our humanity.