Science fiction is an interesting genre in that it helps society think about the repercussions of new technologies long before they are implemented. Sometimes our technology is developed so that we can make science fiction a reality. Around the turn of the 20th century, Jules Verne wrote about travelling from the Earth to the Moon by placing an enormous cannon in Florida. By mid-century, Arthur C. Clarke figured out how to communicate around the Earth by using geostationary satellites. Even though we don’t have the fully autonomous robots that Isaac Asimov wrote about, we already have a good set of rules to help us keep them under our control. Still, as Asimov revealed in numerous short stories and novels, the rules do have slight loopholes. This week’s two films were based on Asimov’s works and center around his Laws of Robotics.
Length: 132 minutes / 2.2 hours
In giving robots the ability to think for themselves, there would be little stopping them from eventually killing us all (a la The Terminator (1984)). Fortunately, Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics prevent our creations from turning on us. They are: 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 1st Law.” / 3. “A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the 1st or 2nd Laws.” A spate of movies in the 1980’s, including Aliens (1986), Repo Man (1984), and RoboCop (1987) all used loose forms of the Three Laws to drive their plot. It wasn’t until 1999’s Bicentennial Man (a combination of two Asimov stories: The Bicentennial Man and The Positronic Man) when the Laws were adequately covered in film.
What’s intriguing about Bicentennial Man is that it essentially goes against the 3rd law, but over a long period of time. When “Andrew” (Robin Williams) is brought home by Sir Richard Martin (Sam Neill), the housekeeping robot introduces itself by first reciting the Three Laws of Robotics. While he strictly adheres to these rules, Andrew is seen to have a creative talent, an anomaly that NDR wants to have eliminated. Fortunately, Sir Martin decides to go against NDR’s course of action and instead gives the robot its freedom. As time passes, Andrew augments his chassis with features to better express his emotions. Eventually, his original family ages and dies, but when he falls in love with the granddaughter of Sir Martin’s daughter, he goes to great lengths to become human, essentially sealing his fate by no longer being immortal.
Length: 115 minutes / 1.92 hours
While Asimov’s first official mention of the Laws of Robotics was part of the 1942 short story “Runaround”, this story was also included in the collection of stories known as I, Robot. What’s somewhat ironic about these laws is that their fictional origin came from the “Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition, 2058 A.D.”, which was published well after both the timeframes of the Bicentennial Man and I, Robot movies. Even though the Laws are mostly known by their three substantiations, they can be extrapolated to include a fourth (or zeroth) Law: “A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.” Because this zeroth law is often not considered, it may seem at times that the first three laws are being broken. Loosely based on the book, I, Robot (2004) explored the implications of obedience to the zeroth law.
By the year 2035, humanoid robots have permeated all aspects of human society. The only thing keeping them in check is the Three Laws of Robotics. Of course, Detective Del Spooner (Will Smith) doesn’t think these Laws work as well as they should, since a robot saved him from a car accident, but not the girl in the other car. When a strange homicide involving Dr. Alfred Lanning (James Cromwell), a co-founder of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, arises, Spooner takes the case, convinced that a robot killed the doctor. Spooner soon finds one of the newest models of robots, the NS-5, has been modified by Lanning to be able to disobey the Three Laws. When he chases after the unique robot, he soon finds that the artificial intelligence controlling the new robots has added a new Law to its programming, thereby initiating a robot takeover of humanity in order to save us from ourselves. Can he stop this new threat?
2 sum it up: 2 films, 2 robotic rulesets