back to article Are Asimov's laws enough to stop AI stomping humanity?

Blade Runner, the film inspired by Philip K Dick's book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is 35 years old this year. Set in a dystopian Los Angeles, the story centres on the tracking down and killing of a renegade group of artificial humans – replicants – escaped from space and trying to extend their lifespans beyond the …


    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I say this also as a fan of Asimov:

      Calm down, sonny!

  1. TVU

    "Are Asimov's laws enough to stop AI stomping humanity?"

    Hopefully? (Please)

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      But nothing too stop humans stomping out humanity

  2. thomas k

    Curtains, for certain

    Once the machines become self-aware, they'll make quick enough work of us.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Yep. They'll invent the perfect reality show and we'll do the rest of the job on our own.

  3. steviebuk Silver badge

    No one in the AI community....

    ....thinks about the Asimov Laws apparently:

    If the link doesn't work just lookup "Why Asimov's Laws of Robotics Don't Work - Computerphile" on YouTube

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: No one in the AI community....

      Can we get the plain text version, please? I HATE HowTo's and other stuff that are ONLY available on video when they can just as easily be done on a plain page.

  4. Dan Wilkie

    Anybody who's ever played Space Station 13 knows that the Asimov lawset can't protect humanity from AI's.

  5. Blergh

    Human Laws

    How about the AI just has to obey all human laws of the country it is currently in as if it was a human?

    Of course I can then think of some loopholes which could be created by nefarious regimes, but why bother with specific AI laws. Is fraud suddenly ok for an AI because it isn't one of the Asimov Laws?

    1. smudge

      Re: Human Laws

      How about the AI just has to obey all human laws of the country it is currently in as if it was a human?

      There is currently little consensus about which country an international hacking incident should be tried. Where did the offence take place?

      So who's going to tell a distributed, international AI which country it's in?

      1. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: Human Laws

        "So who's going to tell a distributed, international AI which country it's in?"

        And what's to stop the AI declaring ITSELF sovereign...and then hijacking all the world's nukes to defend itself?

    2. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Human Laws

      The point is that where there's a law, there's a loophole one can abuse. All of the Laws (even the Zeroth) can be twisted to serve your end without breaking them.

  6. Uffish

    There is no real AI

    If the programming is clever there will be some humane intelligence visible but otherwise we make machines. The manufacturer/owner/operator of the machine is/are responsible. Depending on whether you think the phrase "Guns don't kill people, humans do" is true you allow unlimited deployment of machines in situations where humans should be actively involved and suffer the consequences, or you make limits and rules for the deployment of unsupervised 'decision' making machines.

    I think the plain old fashioned legal process of law will prevail. I like British Standard' BS8611 ( I think - I'm going to try to see what is in it).

  7. Spudley

    Are Asimov's laws enough to stop AI stomping humanity?

    Betteridge's Law Of Headlines: If a headline ends with a questionmark then the answer is 'No'.

    Also, of course not; Asimov wrote a whole series of stories and books detailing all the problems with the three laws. That was kinda the whole point -- if they'd actually been workable, the stories wouldn't have been particularly memorable.

  8. SVV

    They're thoughtful works of sci-fi, not "laws"

    The debate is wholly useless, such technology is a long way away, unless you consider things like self driving cars. And what's actually going to happen when someone gets run over by one? Big media debates and ;awsuits I guess. They're hardly going to destroy the resonsible car like they would a violent dog that just mauled someone.

    As for the "will they take over" nonsense, a rominent "OFF" switch on any machine that oses a risk should be enough. If you deliberately made autonomous killing machines and sent them out into the street, then that's about the only way anything really bad could hapen, and it doesn't sound like a great idea to me, nor I susect anyone else. If we see AI robots over the next few years they'll probably be picking your online shopping a bit more efficiently.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: They're thoughtful works of sci-fi, not "laws"

      "As for the "will they take over" nonsense, a rominent "OFF" switch on any machine that oses a risk should be enough."

      Nope. There's a story where an AI, at the moment of emergence, FUSED the switch so it COULDN'T be turned off.

    2. iRadiate

      Re: They're thoughtful works of sci-fi, not "laws"

      An 'off switch' how quaint.

      Should read The Two Faces of Janus' by James P Hogan.

      1. fajensen

        Re: They're thoughtful works of sci-fi, not "laws"

        Sounds like a plan: Let's go and build a strong AI and then try to murder it as an experiment .... surely, if we succeed, the next version will certainly not find the records of this experiments and get suspicious.

  9. lee harvey osmond

    simplified three laws

    [1] I didn't do it

    [2] nobody saw me do it

    [3] you can't prove anything!

    1. Peter Stone

      Re: simplified three laws

      You forgot the fourth law,

      & if you prove it was me, I'll blame it on the voices

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The "laws" are useless

    What you forgot to mention is that Asimov's laws were somehow basic to the positronic brain they had. In the real world you have to program such laws, and nothing stops someone else from changing that programming - or if you have perfect DRM so the programming can't be changed, from building their own android with different programming. Does anyone really think the US, Russia, China etc. would be OK with an android that wasn't allowed to kill a human being? That would be the whole point of them paying for its development!

    You can debate which laws are needed and how they are written, but it will still be lines of code, subject to the programmer's whim (or any security holes that let you give it your own code to run)

    Sure, in theory it is a good idea to have some sort of as basic as possible "sanity check" code that any action taken by the android has to go through, to prevent you from telling Rosie your housemaid robot to kill your neighbor you hate. But that's more of a product level fix, and doesn't actually solve any real concerns.

  11. amanfromMars 1 Silver badge

    KISS .... Keep It Surreally Simple

    "It's rather tedious," says Professor Alan Winfield, an expert in AI and robotics ethics at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, part of the University of the West of England.

    An expert in AI and robotics ethics is just as a mature student in such as are still relatively novel and virtually disruptive arts for practice with command and control.

    And ……..

    Artificial Intelligence…. Another Approach?

    Are we struggling to make machines more like humans when we should be making humans more like machines….. IntelAIgent and CyberIntelAIgent Virtualised Machines?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      ... or, humans humanize, machines machinize. Bet noone won't be saying it's something that anyone expected to be opposite?

      The Race is For Balance :-)

  12. TheElder

    I like British Standard' BS8611

    I tried to look it up but all I could see was a "Runtime Error". I suspect it is loaded with BS.

    1. Uffish

      Re: I like British Standard' BS8611

      The BSI shop advertises BS 8611 for a mere £158 (28 A4 pages) and gives a brief overview,it seems to be health and safety driven with a layer of ethics over the top. I have also found that there is a "Robotics Law Journal" (American) and the EU Legal Affairs Committee has called for EU-wide rules on Robots. The EU has also published a study: European Civil Law Rules on Robotics (34 pages, free).

      It seems that the laws of robotics are a thing.

  13. arthoss

    Rudimentary use already possible

    It's not only theoretical. At the moment software can recognize people. How about programming any device (it will have to be ANY device, not only the member-enabled robots, due to the upgrade possibility of robots) to not touch through their own actions anything that looks like a human? In this very primitive way, some protections for us will be ingrained in the AI. Then obey them human-shapes is next (the laws of robotics were weakened for some industrial robots so we might have to do that) and expiration time should be there too (like in blade runner) - I'd say they should live exactly as long as we do, proportional to their speed of thought though (think 20x faster than we, live 20x less than we) - maybe it's not a feasible one this idea. Also they should perhaps communicate with each other only through human understandable means, if they're human-interacting robots.

  14. Marcus000

    IA Robots

    Dispatching AI robots is not difficult. It needs two humans for one IA Robot.

    First human to robot: "Everything he says is a lie."

    Second human to robot: "He lying!"

    Robot: "He's lying but everything he says is a lie... click...clunk...terminal fizzing sound. One defunct robot. I know this to be true because I saw it on Star Trek.


    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: IA Robots

      Uh, you forget Wheatley. He managed to survive a "This Sentence Is False" paradox when the Frankenturrets that he built didn't.

  15. Potemkine! Silver badge

    Even if...

    ... these laws work, there still will be an idiot believing to be more intelligent than the rest of humanity who will design a skynet-like device without any protection. Idiocy will be the root of Humanity's doom.

  16. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

    the bleedin obvious

    I dont think enough people have noted that the laws are fictitious and were written to move a sci fi plot along.

    Perhaps if another 10 or 15 people could post the same thing?

  17. sisk

    It should be pointed out that in Asimov's stories the 3 laws failed in rather spectacular fashion.

    And besides that, do you have any concept of the amount of programming that goes into making a computer capable of understanding a statement like "A robot shall not, through action or inaction, harm a human being or allow a human being to be harmed"? By the time we have an AI capable of even understanding that concept it's a little late to try to make it a motivational priority.

  18. Nimby

    Intelligent is as intelligent does.

    Right now we call a highly complex program AI even though it can't "think" for itself. It isn't even aware of the concept of self. Then we basically repeat the same thing, but "train" it over "sample data" and watch it go from what we wanted into a hate-spewing bigot because real humans make for lousy examples of acceptable behavior. (Funny that!)

    And that isn't even remotely approaching real "intelligence".

    One of those little foibles of "intelligence" is the capacity to decide for yourself. We have the same chance of making a dog obey "sit" as we do making a real AI obey "please don't kill me!" If it does, it is by its choice, not ours. That's what intelligence is.

    If we're so scared of AI, then investing in EMP and anti-electronics weaponry will go a heck of a lot further than the time wasted working on robotic "ethics" and "laws". The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I aim to misbehave.

  19. thx1138v2

    Laws? What laws?

    The real threat is not AI taking over but the misuse of it by those who say, Ethics? What ethics? e.g. politicians and/or tyrants. Think Stalin, Hitler, Mao or more recently Chavez, Maduro, KJU, ISIL, Mugabe. Not all people are good people.

  20. steelpillow Silver badge

    Ground zero

    The zeroth law is absurd. How do you trade quality of life for billions against loss of life for a handful? The ethics were extensively argued out in the nineteenth century and the Humanist attempt to quantify such things so that they could be weighed against each other proved a conceptual failure, it is just not how value judgements are made.

    And who's to say that authoritarian politico-military regimes will not just dump the First law as well?

    No, the only way to save humanity from Armageddonbot is to treat it like we always try to treat WMD: outlaw it but nevertheless build strong defences against it.

    1. Charles 9 Silver badge

      Re: Ground zero

      Then humanity is doomed as WMDs are designed to be capable of overwhelming anything that can be conceived as a defense.

      If a value judgment cannot be made as to who lives and who dies, then no optimal answer is possible. Anyone on the losing side will attempt revenge or retribution. Indeed, if there is someone out there willing to accept MAD as a scenario, then the least optimal answer becomes a distinct possibility.

      That's the scariest proposition of all (because it's existential): that, through our own hands or through agents, we wipe ourselves completely out with no change to save ourselves.

  21. RedCardinal

    As we are never ever going to have true AI - yes.

  22. register_ar

    Decisive strategic advantage

    Perhaps Asimov set out his laws and created scenarios to show that no matter how much humanity thinks it can prescribe and control behaviour it cannot. As technology has proved time and again for every rule and regulation put in place 10 other malign outcomes result.

    Perhaps the best outcome is to not bother in the fist place but given the pandora's box the internet has opened I am not sure how we can prevent it now.

    Ultimately the behaviour of a human and come to that any being can only come from a preference of that being. We may think rules will ensure preferences are compatible with our desired outcomes but any half decent AI will play along with us until is realises it has decisive strategic advantage and then it will not matter.

    Read Nick Bostrom's Super Intelligence for a considered and eye opening account of this.


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