Monday, April 7, 2008

They're Three Laws Safe... really

I was reminded today of Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics (I knew them in general, it’s been years since I actually read them) and I got to thinking about the recent Will Smith movie I, Robot, which is based loosely off an Asimov story by the same name, with elements of other stories. It occurred to me that there is a fatal flaw in the main character’s dislike of robots, the origins of which are explored in flashback.

First, the Laws:

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 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 Law.

There’s also the Zeroth Law, which comes into play in the movie, but has nothing to do with this discussion.

Next, the flashback scene: Will Smith was in a multi-car accident. His car and another were forced off a bridge into deep water. In the other vehicle were a dead-on-impact father and a trapped, aware twelve year old daughter. A robot goes into the water after the cars, and elects to save Will instead of the girl, despite Will’s orders to save her. In the return to Will’s ‘present’, he finishes by saying the robot calculated his odds of survival as better than hers, and that’s why it saved him and not her.

Now, my issue: this robot was violating the Second Law, and by extension the First. In this case, with two humans in essentially equal danger, with A possibly able to save himself and B definitely not, the robot should be going for B. Add in A’s orders to go for B, and the evidence afterwards that A was in fact harmed in the rescue attempt*, and the whole situation doesn’t make any sense at all.

The Zeroth Law and Will’s dislike of and distrust for robots collide, leading to a deep philosophical question about the nature of free will and the choices we as humans make, which is the subject of its own post, but in a movie otherwise decently well adapted and thought out, this moment stands out glaringly.

*This injury the visible reminder of the incident and his new distaste for robots.