Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics

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A ‘robot’ is a machine that is designed and built-in with a certain level of artificial intelligence to perform to him assigned tasks autonomously but that ultimately needs to be monitored and controlled by a human being.

The terms ‘robot’ and ‘robotics’ have been used for many years.

‘Robot’ is coined by Karel Čapek, a Czech playwright who introduced the word in 1920 in his science fiction play ‘R.U.R’ (Rossum’s Universal Robots)” to describe the robotic machines that were used for laborious work or robota in Chech and other Slavonic languages.

The term ‘robotics’ was first used by Isaac Asimov, an American science fiction writer who started writing short stories featuring positronic robots in 1939. Robotics is a portmanteau formed by combining robot and electronics, the science and technology of electrical devices and as such the term means ‘the science and technology of robots’.

In his stories, Asimov creates the Three Laws of Robotics and ushers in the Robot Age: when Earth is ruled by master-machines and when robots are more human than mankind. The Three Laws of Robotics were programmed into real computers thirty years ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but modern programming of robotics’ design still adheres to these principles today. The Three Laws stipulate that:

  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 Law.

These clauses outline the following design specifications which are still valid in modern robotics’ engineering:

  1. A robot should be designed in such a way that it cannot harm a human being whilst operating and/or by inaction (failing to operate when required). This could be achieved by building in the design emergency stop functionality and capability.
  2. A robot should be designed in such a way that it can be programmed to follow and execute the instructions from human beings. Therefore, it should have an interface that is user-friendly to assist non-expert users. And it should have a built-in switch-off mode in case of possible harm to the human operator (refer to 1st Law).
  3. The design of a robot should include a safe-mode where the robot can go in stand-by or inactivity to protect it from self-harm. The most obvious example is that of a machine/robot not operation when it is overheated.

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