I was watching the Apple TV+’s show Foundation based on Isaac Asimov’s books and it reminded me of a story about the origin of the Laws of Robotics. More precisely, I tried to remember what the story was. I googled:
Who Invented the Laws of Robotics?
Without surprise, the answer is Isaac Asimov. And it was a bit disconcerting that I didn’t immediately find out more about what inspired him. I had to dig a little deeper (not a lot) to find what I was searching for.
The story of Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics didn’t start with him by himself thinking that his robots needed some rules to follow. But first:
What are the Laws of Robotics?
Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics are also called 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 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 Laws.
Where do the Laws of Robotics come from?
The Three Laws of Robotics were first introduced in Asimov’s 1942 short story “Runaround,” published in an issue of Astounding Science Fiction—and later collected in I, Robot (1950), The Complete Robot (1982), and Robot Visions (1990).
The story is about Gregory Powell and Mike Donovan—two of Asimov’s recurring characters—and Robot SPD-13, also known as “Speedy.” They are sent to Mercury to restart operations at a mining station that was abandoned ten years before. Soon, things get complicated and, when Speedy disappeared, Powell and Donovan try to understand what happened. This leads to an examination of the influence of the Laws of Robotics on Speedy’s reactions.
What was the inspiration behind the Laws of Robotics?
Isaac Asimov thought that the laws are so obvious he shouldn’t be praised for creating them. He may be right about that. But he is the one who wrote them anyway.
The story began in May 1939, as he joined a meeting of the Queens Science Fiction Society. There, he met comic book writer Otto Binder and his brother Earl. Under the Eando Binder name, they published short stories like the ones featuring a heroic robot named Adam Link. The first was titled “I, Robot*.” It was about the famous Adam Link robot who wrote his confessions after being falsely accused of murdering his creator.
* It’s the publisher who decided to name “I, Robot” the collection of Asimov’s Robot stories. He objected, but the title stayed anyway.
This story inspired Asimov to write “Robbie,” and to try to get it published by Astounding Science-Fiction. The magazine editor, Joseph W Campbell, rejected it because he thought it was too similar to 1938 Lester del Rey’s “Helen O’Loy”—about a robot falling in love with one of its creators. Frederik Pohl didn’t have the same objections and published the story under the title “Strange Playfellow” in Super Science Stories (September 1940).
It was the beginning of the Robot series, but not of the laws. They came after a conversation with another science-fiction writer, John W. Campbell (known for his novella “Who Goes There?” aka The Thing). Campbell helped Asimov to formulate his ideas, a collaboration later described as “a symbiotic partnership between the two men.” Campbell refused to take credit because Asimov already had the laws in his mind and just needed help to formulate them.
Even if the conversation between Asimov and Campbell took place at the end of 1940, the laws were not introduced immediately. After “Robbie,” two more stories were published—“Liar!” (1941) and “Reason” (1941)—before “Runaround” in 1942.
Since then, a LOT has been written about the laws. Some refined them, some examined them extensively, some dismissed them. They certainly found a place in pop culture, but also in science as the ones who work on the development of robots can’t ignore them. In fact, Asimov’s work is an inspiration for those who see robots everywhere in our lives in the future.