I, Robot by Isaac AsimovIt’s no secret that we love Isaac Asimov when it comes to Throwback Thursday, ScienceFiction.com’s ongoing column dedicated to the great science fiction of the past. After all, he’s the originator of some of the most well-loved tropes in sc-ifi. So, it is with that thought in mind that we take a look at “Runaround”, which first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction, but is more famously collected in every sci-fi nerd’s favorite book, ‘I, Robot’.

In “Runaround”, Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics show up for the first time. These Three Laws, though science fiction, are so influential that they are consistently cited by academics and ethicists when considering our future with artificial intelligence. For those who are not in the know, the rules:

  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.

Each rule is subservient to the rule above it, so for example, if a human is in danger, a robot must disregard its orders if it could cause harm.

The idea behind them is to ensure a way for us to use robots but avoid a Skynet type situation. But in Asimov’s stories, he cleverly shows that no matter how much you try to constrain programming, there will always be unexpected outcomes. In fact, most of ‘I, Robot’ is dedicated to how robots logically interpret these three rules, but to hilarious and/or disastrous results. This is exactly what happens in “Runaround.”

In the story, two engineers and a robot named Speedy go to restart a failed mine on Mercury. When they get there, they know they have to get selenium in order to power up the life support system. Naturally, since Mercury is so inhospitable, they send Speedy. Unfortunately, Speedy doesn’t return which means their lives are in danger. Instead, they discover him circling the selenium pool haphazardly. The engineers realize that the third law and the second law are conflicting, particularly since Speedy has a strengthened third law so he can survive in the hazardous conditions. Essentially, his need to follow orders and his need for self-preservation force him into a holding pattern. In the end, the engineers solve it by putting one of the engineer’s lives in danger, which is the ultimate law. When the robot realizes he will die, it breaks its loop, and they are able to get the selenium.

For those into robot stories, it may sort of seem like a humdrum concept now, but this was at the height of thought exercise when it was written, and remains to be a favorite story for fans everywhere. So, make sure it read it if you haven’t!