The laws of robotics… and how to apply them

29 August 2014 by Pierre Picard

In the 1940s, the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov defined three laws of robotics.

Robots are often portrayed as hostile and evil, in the tradition of Frankenstein’s monster and others. But in the 1940s and 1950s, it was time to bring some order into all this! And so the three laws of robotics, as defined by Isaac Asimov, were set out:

  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 to 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.

Obviously, one could say that we’re still a long way off robots manipulating men as HAL, the robot in the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey, did. So you might say that we still have time to implement these famous laws.

In fact, we’ve already started to do just that, with the emergence of supercomputers.

On 6 May 2010, for example, the New York Stock Exchange collapsed suddenly. Nearly $1,000 billion disappeared for no apparent reason. The cause? Ultra-powerful high-speed computers running a ‘wild’ program. The First Law: Since that day, of automatic suspension of the Exchange was implemented in case of a sudden drop in prices.

More recently, just a few days ago the SEC decided to regulate high frequency trading: the software on supercomputers that automatically places trades. In the US, high-frequency traders are now required to register with the SEC, although for now the regulator has decided not to impose a speed limit on them. But they are suspected of being used to manipulate prices. All that’s left for it to be proved is for the Stock Market ‘police’ to equip themselves with even more powerful tools than those available to the high-frequency traders, if they are to go after them and analyze all their transactions…

In other words, the setting of laws alone will not stop machines rebelling against man: the bodies responsible for enforcing those laws have to have the means to do so. Because while there is no society without law, there is no law without sanction… With or without robots.

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