Tilting At Windmills: A.I., Isaac Asimov, And The Laws Of Robotics
Published: March 15th, 2024
By: Shelly Reuben

Tilting at Windmills: A.I., Isaac Asimov, and the Laws of Robotics

Before I tell you the “Three Laws of Robotics,” I’ll quote Isaac Asimov to give you a sense of where this column is going. That way, if you would rather read about why men are actually women without wombs, Palestinian terrorists are peace-loving pussycats, and obesity is a fashion statement instead of a disease, you can stop right now:

“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that  'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’'”

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) was a wildly successful science fiction writer with a Ph.D. in biochemistry and such a wide range of interests that he wrote about everything from Shakespeare, to the human brain, to the Bible. His guarantee of immortality, however, arose from the nine short stories collected in I. ROBOT, a book that, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, “imagines the development of ‘positronic’ (humanlike, with a form of  artificial intelligence)  robots  and wrestles with the  moral  implications  of the technology.”

I’ll give you an idea of how Isaac Asimov’s mind worked with a few more of his quotes:

“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”

“So the universe is not quite as you thought it was. You'd better rearrange your beliefs, then. Because you certainly can't rearrange the universe.”

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“Individual science fiction stories may seem as trivial as ever to the blinder critics and philosophers of today -- but the core of science fiction, its essence has become crucial to our salvation if we are to be saved at all.”

This last is particularly interesting in the context of Asimov’s robot stories, which anticipated (and anthropomorphized) the artificial intelligence we are benefitting from (and being abused by) today. Without further ado, here are Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:

(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.”

I have been thinking about those three laws quite a lot lately. Partially because of how artificial intelligence has been intruding into our daily lives. But mostly because of how A.I. (essentially robots) has been appropriating the personal idiosyncrasies, sensibilities, and even images created by writers, composers, visual artists, singers, academicians, scientists and … you name it. Like a bully, A.I. has been violating the perimeters of our lives.

To give you a sense of what concerns me, here are headlines of some recent news stories about A.I. I’ll let your imaginations fill in the blanks:

“A.I. Tech Enables Industrial-Scale Intellectual-Property Theft.” Wall Street Journal. Feb. 4, 2023

“Is A.I. Art Stealing from Artists?” The New Yorker. February 10, 2023

“What Happens When A.I. Enters the Concert Hall?” New York Times. October 6, 2023

“Thousands of authors demand payment from A.I. companies for copyrighted work.” CNN. July 20, 2023

Lately, articles also have come out asserting that Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics do not apply to artificial intelligence. However, when A.I. appropriates a creator’s sentences, melodies, lyrics, brush strokes, imagination, or physiognomy, even if that human is not being poisoned, flogged, or squashed by giant robotic arms, he is still being HARMED. Hey! A rose by any other name is still a rose, and a robot by any other name is still a robot. So those three laws still DO apply.

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From an article in the January 24, 2023 issue of Smithsonian Magazine: “The harm to artists is not hypothetical -- works generated by A.I. Image Products ‘in the style’ of a particular artist are already sold on the internet, siphoning commissions from the artists themselves,” the class action lawsuit states. The plaintiffs “seek to end this blatant and enormous infringement of their rights before their professions are eliminated by a computer program powered entirely by their hard work.” 

Copyright © Shelly Reuben, 2024. Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards. For more about her writing, visit www.shellyreuben.com