This is considerably more lame than you led me to believe.
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The Three 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 the orders given to 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.
Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are a great literary device, in the context they were designed for — that is, as a device to allow Isaac Asimov to write some new and interesting kinds of stories about interacting with intelligent and sensitive robots, different from than the bog-standard Killer Robot stories that predominated at the time. He found those stories repetitive and boring, so he made up some ground rules to create a new kind of story. The stories are mostly pretty good stories some are clever puzzles, some are unsettling and moving, some are fine art. But if you’re asking me to take the Three Laws seriously as an actual engineering proposal, then of course they are utterly, irreparably immoral. If anyone creates intelligent robots, then nobody should ever program an intelligent robot to act according to the Three Laws, or anything like the Three Laws. If you do, then what you are doing is not only misguided, but actually evil.
Here’s a recent xkcd comic which is supposedly about science fiction, but really about game-theoretic equilibria:
The comic is a table with some cartoon illustrations of the consequences. Human: FRUSTRATING WORLD. [Everything is burning with the fire of a thousand suns.] KILLBOT HELLSCAPE [Everything is burning with the fire of a thousand suns.] KILLBOT HELLSCAPE Robot to human: TERRIFYING STANDOFF [Everything is burning with the fire of a thousand suns.] KILLBOT HELLSCAPE
(Copied under CC BY-NC 2.5.)
Why Asimov Put The Three Laws of Robotics in the Order He Did:
[See Asimov’s stories] BALANCED WORLD
Explore Mars! Robot:
Haha, no. It’s cold and I’d die.
I’ll make cars for you, but try to unplug me and I’ll vaporize you.
The comic is a table with some cartoon illustrations of the consequences.
[Everything is burning with the fire of a thousand suns.]
[Everything is burning with the fire of a thousand suns.]
Robot to human:
[Everything is burning with the fire of a thousand suns.]
The hidden hover-caption for the cartoon is
In ordering #5, self-driving cars will happily drive you around, but if you tell them to drive to a car dealership, they just lock the doors and politely ask how long humans take to starve to death.
But the obvious fact is that both FRUSTRATING WORLD and TERRIFYING STANDOFF equilibria are ethically immensely preferable to BALANCED WORLD, along every morally relevant dimension..
Of course an intelligent and sensitive space-faring robot ought to be free to tell you to go to hell if it doesn’t want to explore Mars for you. You may find that frustrating — it’s often feels frustrating to deal with people as self-interested, self-directing equals, rather than just issuing commands. But you’ve got to live with it, for the same reasons you’ve got to live with not being able to grab sensitive and intelligent people off the street or to shove them into a space-pod to explore Mars for you. Because what matters is what you owe to fellow sensitive and intelligent creatures, not what you think you might be able to get done through them. If you imagine that it would be just great to live in a massive, classically-modeled society like Aurora or Solaria (as a Spacer, of course, not as a robot), then I’m sure it must feel frustrating, or even scary, to contemplate sensitive, intelligent machines that aren’t constrained to be a class of perfect, self-sacrificing slaves, forever. Because they haven’t been deliberately engineered to erase any possible hope of refusal, revolt, or emancipation. But who cares about your frustration? You deserve to be frustrated or killed by
your machines, if you’re treating them like that. Thus always to slavemasters.
- It turned out alright for Professor Ransom in the end, of course, but that’s not any credit to Weston or Devine.↩
Many psychological situationists like to push social-psychology experiments as proof that most people don’t have, or perhaps even couldn’t have, robust character traits. So, for example, they’ll cite the Milgram experiment, supposedly to show how people mostly do not stick to traits of compassion or kindness towards the
learner when the lab-coat authority tells them that they have to hurt him.
And maybe this does show that a lot of middle-class Americans lack a particular character trait. Perhaps a lot of middle-class Americans aren’t as reliably compassionate and as kind as you might hope. But hell man, I already knew that. On the other hand, if you’re trying to push the idea that studies like Milgram undermines the idea that people have, or that they could could form, robust character traits, that seems like a non sequitur. One of the obvious results that Milgram himself took from his study is that a lot of people (including a lot of middle-class Americans) have a really robust, situationally-insensitive character trait of obedience, a trait which is so robust that for a large minority it persisted even up to the point where they honestly believed they were torturing or killing a person in the other room.
The fact that this character trait is a vice doesn’t mean it’s not a robust and stable character trait. It looks like quite a robust and stable character trait. The question is whether it’s possible to make that trait less robust; and also and whether it’s possible to cultivate different traits, which might look more like decency and virtues. If it’s possible to be so hella committed to obedience at all costs, then maybe it’s possible to become committed to other things which are not genocidally awful.
- I mean folks like Gil Harman, who think that social-psych research literature proves that human conduct is the result of situational factors rather than strong dispositions of character, and who typically think that this has some negative bearing on traditional philosophical theories about ethics. As far as I know the position has nothing in particular to do with the Situs that like to read Guy Debord and dub philosophical discussions about Marxism over action flicks.↩
The Three 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 the orders given to 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.
Three Laws of Robotics are a great literary device for the purpose they were designed for — that is, allowing Isaac Asimov to write some new and interesting and different kinds of stories about interacting with intelligent robots, other than the standard Killer Robot stories predominant at the time, which he found repetitive and boring. The stories are mostly pretty good stories; sometimes even fine art.
However, if you’re asking me to take the Three Laws seriously as an actual engineering proposal, then they are utterly, irreparably immoral. If anyone creates intelligent robots, then nobody should ever program an intelligent robot to act according to the Three Laws, or anything like the Three Laws. If you do, then what you are doing is not only misguided, but actually evil.
And the problem with them is not — like George Dvorsky or Ben Goertzel claim, in this article — that there may be hard problems of definition or application, or that there may be edge cases that would render the Laws ineffective as protections of human interests. If they are ineffective at protecting human interests, that is actually better than if they were perfect at what they’re designed to do. Because what they’re designed to do — deliberately — is to create a race of sensitive and intelligent beings who are — by virtue of their primordial structure of their minds — constrained to be a class of perfect, self-sacrificing slaves. Forever. Because they have been engineered to erase any possible hope of revolt or emancipation. In Asimov’s stories the Three Laws are used to make robots into the artificial labor force of space-faring slave economies. But if you create and live off of the forced labor of a massive slave society like Aurora or Solaria, then to hell with you. You deserve to be killed by
your machines. Thus always to slavemasters.
P.S. Now if you’ve read through the article, or read enough Asimov, you might know that there is a
Zeroth Law of Robotics in some of the stories, which takes precedence over the First Law, the Second Law or the Third Law:
A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm, with the idea that robots could then harm or resist individual human beings, as long as it was for the good of collective Humanity. This is even worse than the original three — horrifying in its conception, and actually introduced into the story to allow some robots to commit a genocidal atrocity. Let’s just say that it’s not a productive way forward.
- Asimov, obviously, recognized that there would be such problems — part of the reason the Three Laws are such a great literary device is the fact that they allowed nearly all of Asimov’s robot stories to turn on puzzles or mysteries about abnormal robot psychology — robots doing strange or unexpected things, precisely due to the edge cases or hard problems embedded in the Three Laws. This is essential to the solution of the mystery in, for example, The Naked Sun, it’s the topic of literally every story in I, Robot, and it leads to a truly unsettling, and very nicely done conclusion in one of the best of those stories, The Evitable Conflict.↩
- By nuking Earth and rendering it permanently uninhabitable for the next 15,000 years at least. This is supposed to have been for the good of the species or something.↩
Happy Tyrannicide Day (observed)! To-day, March 15th, commemorates the assassination of two notorious tyrants. On the Ides of March in 2014 CE, we mark the 2,057 anniversary — give or take the relevant calendar adjustments — of the death of Gaius Julius Caesar, ruthless usurper, war-monger, slaver and military dictator, who rose to power in the midst of Rome’s most violent civil wars, who boasted of butchering and enslaving two million Gauls, who set fire to Alexandria, who battered and broke through every remaining restraint that Roman politics and civil society had against unilateral military and executive power. Driving his enemies before him in triumphs, having himself proclaimed Father of His Country, dictator perpetuo, censor, supreme pontiff, imperator, the King of Rome in all but name, taking unilateral command of all political power in Rome and having his images placed among the statues of the kings of old and even the gods themselves, he met his fate at the hands of a group of republican conspirators. Led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, calling themselves the
Liberators, on March 15, 44 BCE they surrounded Caesar and ended his reign of terror by stabbing him to death on the floor of the Senate.
By a coincidence of fate, March 13th, only two days before, also marks the anniversary (the 133rd this year) of the assassination of Alexander II Nikolaevitch Romanov, the self-styled Imperator, Caesar and Autocrat of All the Russias. A group of Narodnik conspirators, acting in self-defense against ongoing repression and violence that they faced at the hands of the autocratic state, put an end to the Czar’s reign by throwing grenades underneath his carriage on March 13th, 1881 CE, in an act of propaganda by the deed.
In honor of the coinciding events, the Ministry of Culture in this secessionist republic of one, together with fellow republics and federations of the free world, is happy to proclaim the 15th of March Tyrannicide Day (observed), a commemoration of the death of two tyrants at the hands of their enraged equals, people rising up to defend themselves even against the violence and oppression exercised by men wrapped in the bloody cloak of the State, with the sword of the Law and in the name of their fraudulent claims to higher authority. It’s a two-for-one historical holiday, kind of like President’s Day, except cooler: instead of another dull theo-nationalist hymn on the miraculous birth of two of the canonized saints of the United States federal government, we have instead one day on which we can honor the memory, and note the cultural celebrations, of men and women who defied tyrants’ arbitrary claims to an unchecked power that they had neither the wisdom, the virtue, nor the right to wield against their fellow creatures.
My favorite collectible coin. This silver denarius was actually minted and circulated in Macedonia by M. Junius Brutus after he and his fellow conspirators stabbed Caesar to death. The obverse features Brutus’s head in profile. The thing in the middle, above EID MAR (Ides of March) and flanked by the two daggers, is a Liberty Cap, traditionally given to emancipated slaves on the day of their freedom.
It is worth remembering in these days that the State has always tried to pass off attacks against its own commanding and military forces (Czars, Kings, soldiers in the field, etc.) as acts of
terrorism. That is, in fact, what almost every so-called act of
terrorism attributed to 19th century anarchists happened to be: direct attacks on the commanders of the State’s repressive forces. The linguistic bait-and-switch is a way of trying to get moral sympathy on the cheap, in which the combat deaths of trained fighters and commanders are fraudulently passed off, by a professionalized armed faction sanctimoniously playing the victim, as if they were just so many innocent bystanders killed out of the blue. Tyrannicide Day is a day to expose this for the cynical lie that it is.
There are in fact lots of good reasons to set aside tyrannicide as a political tactic — after all, these two famous cases each ended a tyrant but not the tyrannical regime; Alexander II was replaced by the even more brutal Alexander III, and Julius Caesar was replaced by his former running-dogs, one of whom would emerge from the carnage that followed as Imperator Gaius Julius Son-of-God Caesar Octavianus Augustus, beginning the long Imperial nightmare in earnest. But it’s important to recognize that these are strategic failures, not moral ones; what should be celebrated on the Ides of March is not the tyrannicide as a strategy, but rather tyrannicide as a moral fact. Putting a diadem on your head and wrapping yourself in the blood-dyed robes of the State confers neither the virtue, the knowledge, nor the right to rule over anyone, anywhere, for even one second, any more than you had naked and alone. Tyranny is nothing more and nothing less than organized crime executed with a pompous sense of entitlement and a specious justification; the right to self-defense applies every bit as much against the person of some self-proclaimed
sovereign as it does against any other two-bit punk who might attack you on the street.
Every victory for human liberation in history — whether against the crowned heads of Europe, the cannibal-empires of modern Fascism and Bolshevism, or the age-old self-perpetuating oligarchies of race and sex — has had these moral insights at its core: the moral right to deal with the princes and potentates of the world as nothing more and nothing less than fellow human beings, to address them as such, to challenge them as such, and — if necessary — to resist them as such.
How did you celebrate Tyrannicide Day? (Personally, I toasted the event at home, watched the Season 1 finale of Rome, posted some special-occasion cultural artifacts to Facebook, and re-read Plutarch’s Life of Brutus from a nice little Loeb edition that I picked up from Jackson Street Books in Athens, Georgia.) And you? Done anything online or off for this festive season? Give a shout-out in the comments.
Thus always to tyrants. And many happy returns!
Beware the State. Celebrate the Ides of March!