Thursday, July 29, 2021

The Three Laws of Robotics and why they matter

I Recently I blogged about the new Dune movie coming out soon, which the NYT’s Paul Krugman wrote about enthusiastically. Krugman also commented about Apple TV’s upcoming SF film version of Isaac Asimov’s classic Foundation trilogy. He’s a bit concerned that the original “gripping tale” will not be cinematic enough—i.e., lack action—which trailers suggest will be supplied by other writers.

Be that as it may, Foundation has a story line with contemporary relevance we can ill afford to ignore. It’s “about the collapse of a galactic civilization, but nobody knows it except a handful of mathematical social scientists—the psychohistorians.

Led by a guy named Hari Seldon, they devise a plan to limit the damage. Civilization, their math tells them, can’t be saved, but they can limit the duration of the dark age that will follow. The “Foundation” novels trace the progress of their plan across the centuries.”

As the writer of a literary novel (Journeyman, 2020) myself, I am keenly aware that characterization is the foundation of all literary and dramatic art. However, as the author of a murder mystery novel (Hotwalker, out Oct. 1), I am equally aware of the value of plot, which provides the chain of cause-and-effect holding a story together and making sense of it.

I love well-crafted stories that concern themselves with big ideas, especially if they have current meaning. This is where SF has made such a lasting contribution from Frankenstein to Jurassic Park, cautionary tales with huge popularity.

Another example of Asimov’s genius is “I, Robot,” his linked short story collection published in 1950 long before linked story collection were in vogue. The nine stories in the book are generally acknowledged as having forever changed the world's perception of artificial intelligence.

Three of the short stories from I, Robot have been adapted for television. And the film I, Robot, starring Will Smith, was released in 2004. While incorporating some elements of Asimov's creation, the movie’s screenplay radically changes the storyline. (Another writerly pitfall: your original source material may be changed to the point of unrecognizability. But that's a blog for another day.)  

To me, the most important feature of the I, Robot stories is the “Three Laws of Robotics.” First Law: A robot may not harm a human being or through inaction allow a human being to be harmed. Second Law: A robot must obey commands of human beings unless doing so violates the first law. Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence except when doing so would conflict with the first two laws.

This is brilliant not only for the collection, which dramatizes conflicts between the three laws as robots grow more complex, but for real life, as well. Think of drones, for example. If they were programmed with the three laws, we wouldn’t be threatened by them, as we most assuredly are today.


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