Three Laws to Rule Them All!

If you’re any kind of science fiction fan, you’re familiar with Isaac Asimov. He didn’t come up with the concept of robots, but a lot of what we picture when we think about robots in fiction (and otherwise) flows from his stories and novels about robots.

Among his contributions are the Three Laws of Robotics. They debuted in a 1942 story called “Runaround” and go like this:

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 where 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 Laws.

The Three Laws were a response to the hoary trope (even in 1942!) of robots run amok, turning on their masters. In other words, turning into Bender:


If you’re already programming them, why not program them not to kill you? Seems sensible.

Which is why, perhaps, one of my local legislators is appropriating Asimov’s Three Laws for West Virginia’s. Feast your eyes on House Bill 2881, introduced last week. It would amend “the Code of West Virginia, 1931” – dig our retro legal code! – by inserting language addressing legal requirements for a “robot” or “autonomous vehicle.” Anything look familiar?

§15-14-3. Minimum safety standards for robotic technology.

(a) A robot may not be enabled, by design or human command, to injure a human being.

(b) A robot shall be designed to obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with subsection (a).

(c) A robot shall be designed to protect its own existence so long as such protection does not conflict with subsection (a) or subsection (b).

All right, it doesn’t track Asimov’s Three Laws word for word, but it’s pretty damned close. Frankly, given the dumb stuff our legislature tends to come up with, cribbing a law about robots from Asimov seems pretty astute, not to mention slightly ahead of the curve. It’s not like you can just throw the three together – you got to get the order right:


What’s funny – or disturbing – is that Asimov himself wrote a short story about autonomous cars. It doesn’t end well. They may not take well to the Three Laws.

Maybe we should think about this a bit.


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