Asimov Laws Are Perfect

But there is more work to be done in robot ethics.Image created by DALL-E (an AI that translates words into images) and me.IntroductionAs a philosophy teacher, from time to time I teach ethics courses, and I don’t think that’s the right discipline to t…

This content originally appeared on Level Up Coding - Medium and was authored by A.P. Bird

But there is more work to be done in robot ethics.

Image created by DALL-E (an AI that translates words into images) and me.


As a philosophy teacher, from time to time I teach ethics courses, and I don’t think that’s the right discipline to teach specifically about any law. Most of my students study all sorts of law codes already (some of them will become lawyers, entrepreneurs, etc.), so I don’t need to teach them again what they already learned elsewhere in their academical life. Although I think it’s important to show some UN laws sometimes.

Fact is, the best thing I can do for them is to show them how to deal with problems that there is no law written yet allowing us to deal with these problems. I show them, for example, polemical international problems (such as what to do when a company is negotiating with another foreign one to sell military stuff to a third country that is in war with the company’s country), or regular day-to-day business problems (such as what to do when your company’s marketing strategies, even though are respecting the laws, is also causing car accidents), and stuff like that.

I teach them about “typification of problems.” I try to make them identify with words where is the problem, then they must find a solution in the most precise, and practical way that may sound fair for most part of the class too. Ultimately they end up thinking of all sorts of laws, and new expressions that may improve foreign policy, marketing, and labor laws.

Ethics and Robotics

There is no “laws for sentient robots” being applied anywhere. Yet, Asimov, one of the most distinguished science fiction writers of the last century, tried to think three steps ahead when he created his three laws of robotics:

  • Law One — “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”
  • Law Two — “A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.”
  • Law Three — “A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”

Recently, a few people thought that wasn’t enough and continued to improve Asimov’s legal work. Thun-Hohenstein, director of Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts, for example, proposed three more laws to prevent robots from harming the environment, culture, and human dignity. Which is good, although it raises more problems than it seems.

Asimov Laws are directed to extremely intelligent and powerful robots that don’t even exist yet, thus no one knows what kind of problem might arise when this kind of robot is created. We can only try to imagine what will happen. Which is not easy. Let’s see.

If we tell the robots to protect the environment, as the Austrian curator suggests, robots may disobey us when we tell them to mow the lawn.
And if we tell them to not harm humanity (as Asimov suggests with his Zeroth Law), they may overprotect us like an invasive parent.

So, what should we tell them?

That’s what I ask my students. And they give many creative laws such as “robots shouldn’t have authority on anything, or power to command humans,” while others chose laws similar to the Austrian curator’s laws, or Asimov’s ones (usually they say what robots should protect, why and how).

But to those who think it is useless to think about this, arguing that robots won’t follow any ethic code, I say: ok, but if robots could follow rules (which we can program them to do) which would be the best rules they should follow to prevent a robot apocalypse from happening?

But I never tell them the answer I created for this problem.

Here it is: I did this exercise myself and I would add three more laws stating that robots can choose from whom they take orders, and I gave them the right to suspend the first three laws if and only if the suspension is based on ethics. After all, who knows which circumstances are waiting for us in the future of ethics?

I wrote these laws here on Medium, in a short fiction called Three Steps Ahead, which is about a detective who works for a company that is trying to predict the entire future. Here are the laws:

The fourth law solves the existential crisis: in order to do any work a robot requires a human to decide when the three fundamental laws can be ignored by the robot.
The fifth adds an ethical concern: humans should only conduct the suspension of the first three fundamental laws basing the suspensions on ethics.
And the sixth law grants rights to the robot: if a human doesn’t suspend the three basic laws basing the suspension on ethics, then, a robot has the right to not take orders from that human.

If these three laws I created were added to the “laws of robotics”, or to, as I prefer, “robots constitutional rights”, I believe both humans and robots would work together to improve what we know about ethics, but only in the sense that ethics can help us in decision-making, and politics (ultimately directing all humanity to common good values).

What do you think?

Tell me, or write here on Medium and tag me to read your approach to this subject. All efforts to improve ethics are great. Maybe you can answer some of these questions: Robots will rule the world? Ethics is just a different form of religion? How to decide whether an ethic code is better than the other? Ethics is for powerless people? Or unethical actions tear our society apart leaving all of us powerless?

Asimov Laws Are Perfect was originally published in Level Up Coding on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

This content originally appeared on Level Up Coding - Medium and was authored by A.P. Bird

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