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Friday, March 16, 2012

How a science fiction writer can change the future

Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics

I promise to leave Isaac Asimov alone after this post, but he is a writer who has always fascinated me.  Ebulliant by nature, he was always willing to talk and write about the science and fun of the writing business.  So, when I found the collection of his editorials for the magazine Nightfall, which are collected in the anthology called Gold, I read his musing with huge interest.  It was fascinating how right -- and how wrong -- his predictions for the future of books and magazines were.

Anyway, here is the story of how he changed a whole evolving science without even realizing what he was doing:.

Back when Isaac Asimov was just 21, he wrote a science fiction story that appeared in the March 1942 edition of Astounding Science Fiction. It was called “Runaround.”

On page 100, one of his characters says, “Now, look, let’s start with the Three Fundamental Rules of Robotics.”

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 when 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.

As Asimov says himself, “These laws, as it turned out (and as I could not possibly have foreseen) proved to be the most famous, the most frequently quoted, and the most influential sentences I ever wrote.”

Not only did the Three Laws affect every robot story written after that – by other authors, as well as Asimov himself – but the concept has been adopted by robotics engineers. Widely recognized as an ideal for robot safety, they are now a part of robotic programming.


Tracey said...

Asimov is my favorite author. I read my first Asimov book, I, Robot, in the seventh grade and was hooked. Whenever I read any of his books, I remember keeping a dictionary closeby. Learned a lot of vocabulary that way. His Foundation series and concept of Psychohistory have always fascinated me.

Joan Druett said...

Ditto to that! I read some of his stories in old copies of Astounding, and headed to the library.

To our delight, our 12-year-old grandson has got hooked on Harry Harrison's Deathworld series. Stainless Steel Rat next, and after that Asimov, definitely.

Interestingly, he moved onto SF not because we (and his father) are fans, but through the Rick Riordan Olympian series. From fantasy to SF is OK by me.