The Three Laws of Robotics, introduced by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in his 1942 short story “Runaround” and subsequently informing his ROBOT novels and other works, have resonated throughout science fiction literature. As we approach an era when robots will be ubiquitous in our daily lives, there is concern about how humans and these intelligent machines will coexist. Robot ethicists are now debating limitations that might be placed on robot capabilities and on how humans can use robots. Asimov’s laws have been recommended as a starting point.
ASIMOV’S 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 orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
The major industrialized countries of Asia are the manufacturing giants of electronics and cutting-edge technology. These industries turned postwar Japan from an agrarian society into a worldwide commercial power. More than half of the world’s industrial robots are utilized in Japanese factories.
In a country where even trees, mountains, and pebbles are traditionally believed to have souls, the Japanese view their products with affection. People often even give their PCs, home electronics, and cell phones personal names and treat them almost as family.
Robotic toys, dolls, and pets are commonplace in Japanese households. Many elderly citizens enjoy the company of robotic dogs that quietly monitor their owners, with the capacity to alert local community centers if they are in trouble. A Honda executive has voiced concern that robots will be expected to execute dangerous, difficult, and unpleasant work such as defusing bombs or cleaning up after nuclear accidents.
The Japanese Ministry of International Trade and Industry has studied the legal ramifications of the eventual introduction of humanoid robots.
South Koreans are also deeply involved with technology and anticipation of a robotic future. The Ministry of Information and Communication predicts that every Korean household will have a robot as early as 2015. Robots are expected to be performing surgery on humans by 2018.
The government of South Korea has announced that a Robot Ethics Charter is in the works. Conceived with the goal of preventing “robot abuse of humans and human abuse of robots,” the five-member team assembled to write the document includes futurists and a science fiction author.
According to a statement from the Ministry of Commerce, Industry, and Energy, “The government plans to set ethical guidelines concerning the roles and functions of robots. The move anticipates the day when robots, particularly intelligent service robots, could become a part of daily life.” Among the issues to be addressed are human robot addiction, humans “treating a robot like a spouse,” and prohibiting robots from ever hurting humans.
In the West, the European Robotics Research Network (EURON) is also debating the eventual use of robots, with particular emphasis on robots’ capacity to teach themselves, become more sophisticated, and even develop consciousness. In anticipation of the introduction of robotic sex toys within five years, the potential for accidental physical harm is an immediate concern.
Asimov’s laws are liable to become a source of nostalgia.