If you know the three laws of robotics, you were probably, like me, beaten up a lot at school. For those who aren’t familiar with them, they are
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 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 are the three rules programmed into the robots by the company, US Robots, so the machines can never threaten humans.
Now Asimov’s robots aren’t like the sleek, sexy replicants played by the likes of Daryl Hannah and Rutger Hauer in Bladerunner. Asimov’s robots are constructions of iron and steel that have glowing red eyes. They work in mines on Mercury or distant energy stations under the supervision of human technicians. Never the less, they are all too human.
The three rules of robotics were first introduced in the story, Runaround. Now, when reading this story you first must accept that there were fully functioning robots around in 2005, and that we were attempting to mine the planet Mercury by 2015. As long as a reader is happy though to shift the dates forward a bit to some undetermined time (why don’t we say, 2033*), the story still holds well together.
The first attempt to mine on Mercury it seems had been a failure, though quite an accomplished failure. Now a second attempt is being made.
Donovon and Powel are awaiting the return of Speedy (unit SPD 13) who has been sent off to retrieve selenium from a nearby source. This mineral is required to fix the photo-cell banks, whose operation is essential for the two men’s survival on the unliveable surface of the planet. The two have space suits, but not even the suits can protect the men longer than thirty minutes out in the sun’s glare.
The story goes on to illustrate the working of the three laws. Speedy has been sent out to retrieve the selenium, but because there is volcanic activity in the area it has to enter, it cannot enter, because it would be breaking rule number 3, protecting its own existence. But because it has been given an order (rule number 2), even though an order that was given casually without proper thought, Speedy is now constantly circling the area it was sent to, in a confused state. Only when Powel enters the heat of the surface deliberately to put his own life in danger, is Speedy able to obey the first law, race over to save him to save him, and then be given new instructions.
When crafting the story, Asimov wanted to look at the practicalities that would be required if we built intelligent constructions. It seems that before him, the concept of robots in science fiction was one of Frankenstein and his monster, where the monster would at some point, invariably turn on its creator.
I think Asimov has the right idea when it comes to the debate on technology. He examines the ethics of a situation; something that mankind has often demonstrated it as little aptitude for. We can apply Asimov’s way of thinking to a lot of our current technologies. For instance, social networking and privacy. Each time a new technology arises it is certain to open up a new range of ethical questions that must be dealt with by society.
*Note to self, amend this date in 2033 if we still haven’t reached Mercury yet.