In 1942, prolific author Isaac Asimov published a short story called “Runaround,” in which two characters named Powell and Donovan, along with their trusty robot Speedy, are sent to Mercury to restart a mining operation on the planet that was abandoned a decade earlier.  The plot of this futuristic Sci-Fi tale (set in the very futuristic Sci-Fi date of 2015) pivots around Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.  Eventually, Asimov would add a fourth (sometimes referred to as a “zeroeth”) law that superseded all others.  These laws were intended to govern the behavior of all robots, and to protect their human creators.  Asimov’s laws were laid out as such:

  1. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
  2. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  3. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  4. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

The intent behind Asimov’s laws was simple: it was already apparent way back in 1942 that robots could feasibly become more intelligent, more capable, stronger, and even more dangerous than their human counterparts, and as such, rules needed to be established to protect humanity from its own creations.  Like Frankenstein’s Monster, a robot blessed with sentience but lacking in compassion could mean Terminator-like repercussions for its creator – or the creator’s entire race.

These fictional laws eventually wormed their way out of the pop-culture lexicon and into the minds of scientists working to develop real robotic technologies for use in a wide variety of applications, including one that would directly violate Asimov’s first law: the military.

The use of such a set of laws is not lost on the European Union, who proposed legislation on Friday that would establish a series of rules designed to govern the construction, operations, and even sentience of robots being developed within the EU.