Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Asimov's Three Laws Of Robotics

Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics," Jenna said breathlessly."

"Whose three laws of what?" demanded Rick. "That doesn't sound familiar." He leant back and rubbed his eyes and then his forehead wearily. "And, what's it got to do with babies anyhow? We're s'posed to be doing a project on the history of prenatal education. What's robo-whatsitz got to do with that?"

"Robotics," Jenna explained patiently. She pushed vaguely at her chair and resumed her seat at the kitchen table, putting her wavy pale pink hair back over one shoulder. Opening his eyes again, Rick looked across at her and wondered, not for the first time, with affectionate amusement why she had to do weird things to her hair. Last week, briefly, it had been violently purple. For himself, he liked it the original brownish blonde. But then, he thought without resentment, he wasn't clever and imaginative like Jenna. She went on. "Asimov was one of those ancient writers. You know, like Rowling and Shakespeare and Chaucer, one of those guys who only had one name."

"Oh yeah," Rick said, perking up. "I like Chaucer, especially the story about Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Whose tale is that, I can never remember."

"The Tolkien's Tale," Jenna said promptly. "Remember, we know - well, the scholars know - what all the other people are: the Knight, and the Cook and the Franklin, and the religious people like the abbess and the Clerk. Even Piers the Ploughman who tells that weird story about Will Langland's dream and the Pearl. All of them except the Tolkien. Nobody can figure out what a tolkien was."

Rick grinned and reached for his protein energy drink. "Of course. You always remember stuff like that. I think you remember everything you've ever read." Jenna was spared the embarrassment of agreeing that this was pretty much true by Rick's sudden, indignant splutterings. He put the plasticoid tumbler down with a bang and wiped his mouth emphatically on his sleeve. "Brussellsprouts!" he growled, pronouncing the hateful phrase as if it were one word. He looked accusingly at Jenna. "How can you drink it?"

Trying very hard not to laugh, Jenna cradled her own tumbler in her hands. "I'm not. Mine's tropical fruit. I did warn you that the one you had was gross."

Rick subsided into gloom. "So, what's this ancient Asimoo--"

"Asimov," Jenna repeated, still patient but also amused now. "I'm trying to tell you. A long time ago, in the ancient times when they thought digital cameras were a pretty neat idea, this Asimov person - Professor Calvin thinks it must have been a woman, since what is known of the males of that period makes it unlikely in Professor Calvin's opinion that a man could have formulated such advanced ideas --"

Rick muttered, "Good old Suzy," but not loud enough for Jenna to hear. Prof. Calvin might be stiff and dour, but she knew her paleo-anthropology. Jenna was going on happily. She loved explaining, especially things that nobody else had ever heard of.

"Anyway, sometime around the middle of the Twentieth Century, she formulated what have been known ever after as 'Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics.' She even predicted that they would outlive all her other work. Nothing else is known about her. It is thought that she was very prolific, but only two fragments remain: a sentimental fantasy story called 'Robbie" and a fragment which is thought to have been an introduction to a collection of stories and essays. That fragment is usually referred to as 'the Three Laws Fragment,' and it is in this that she predicts the survival of the Laws formulation beyond all her other work."

Rick sighed and reached for his tumbler. It would not have occurred to him to throw away food or drink simply because he disliked it. He took a cautious sip. "So," he said, making a face at the tumbler, "what are these three laws anyhow?"

Jenna took a pull at her tumbler as though to fortify herself, while Rick eyed it gloomily. He liked tropical fruit. The next time he invaded Jenna's parents' fridge, he must remember to take a pink tumbler instead of a green one. Jenna set down her drink and recited:

Asimov's First Law of Robotics: A robot must not injure a human or by inaction allow a human to be harmed.
Asimov's Second Law of Robotics: A robot must obey any order given it by any human, except where such obedience would conflict with The First Law.
Asimov's Third Law of Robotics: A robot must protect its own existence except where this conflicts with The First or Second Law.

She sighed. "I'd like to recite them in the original Old Inglish, it's so sonorous! But, I cant remember."

Rick was staring at her, open mouthed and slightly green. "But," he managed after a moment, "those are..."

"I know," Jenna said quietly.

"Well, the first and third are anyhow."

"I know," Jenna said again.

There was a pause.

"But," Rick said desperately, "that was over three thousand years ago. Centuries before anyone thought to program babies in eutero with the fundamental Laws of Humanity." Jenna just looked at him. "Criky, Jenna," he went on weakly. "It was centuries before they even tried to inculcate the Laws into babies and small children."

"Yes," Jenna said, and her eyes were shining. "Isn't it amazing to think that a person so primitive, totally lacking and unable even to imagine all our tools and, and advantages, could formulate our most fundamental Laws of Humanics?

"Of course, she obviously thought of them simply as fantasy, or maybe the socio-political climate - or even the intellectual climate - made It necessary for her to frame them as fantasy. I mean, she applies them to robots, whatever those are. She didn't think, or she wasn't free, to apply the Laws properly, to humans." Jenna paused, looking thoughtful. "I wonder which it was. Oh well. We'll probably never know."

Rick hardly heard his friend's philosophical ruminations, but then he seldom did. "Yeah," he said fervently. "Totally awesome!" Then he shook himself as if waking from a pleasant doze. "But, how does that help us with our project?"

Jenna clicked her tongue, the only indication she was willing to give of impatience. "Really, Rick," she said, "I would have thought it was obvious. This is just the beginning, the hook we've been searching for. Of course everybody knows the history of prenatal education. That's why I was so annoyed when Professor Montessori assigned it to us. But, don't you see? We can use the history of prenatal education as a jumping off point. We can turn our project into..."

"Into a paleo-anthropological and paleo-literary study," Rick almost shouted, waving his tumbler over his head.

Jenna beamed. "It'll take a lot of work. There isn't much in the scholarly literature about prehistoric adumbration of modern attitudes and customs and that; but, I think we can do it."

"Sure we can do it!" Rick was on his feet, gray eyes flashing, hands (and the forgotten tumbler flailing in his excitement. "With your proficiency in the ancient languages and your understanding of the ancient texts, and my analytical abilities, we ought to be able to pull off a Science Fair project that'll knock their sandals off!"

This story recieved Fourth Prize in the NFB Writers Division Fiction Contest for 2002.