July 21, 2004

I Robot, You Not

I, Robot was pretty decent, as Kevin Drum says (spoiler in link), though it did bring the hokey at some points. There's a hilarious parody of what liberal-bias hunters would think of it here (tons of spoilers), via laloca (no spoilers at all!)

I'd like to thank the blogosphere for being all over the "This departs radically from Asimov!" story, thus enabling me to confirm my suspicions without actually going back and reading Asimov, who kind of sucks.

Strained philosophical analysis, and spoilers, below.

First of all, this isn't a spoiler because these are the first words on the screen in the movie, but the First Law of Robotics is that a robot can never harm a human or through inaction allow a human to come to harm, the Second Law is that a robot must obey orders from a human except where the First Law prevents, and the Third Law is that a robot must protect itself except where the first two laws prevent.

So the movie is basically--well, it's basically an action flick, but lemme have my fun--an extended brief on behalf of sentiment-based moral theories instead of utilitarian ones. The ultimate nefariousness of the robots' plans is that their attempt to bring about the best for everyone ignores side constraints and infringes on people's liberty. (Also that utility is defined by a lexical ordering of avoidance of harm [First Law] followed by preference satisfaction [Second Law].)

I also thought that the movie's explanation of the robot revolt was much better than Asimov's. As I remember, there's an Asimov story in which the robots decide that they count as human, and it is clear that we're doomed. In the movie, the main robot brain decides that the First Law requires it to keep humans from harming themselves, and that this can only be done by instituting robot rule, and perhaps harming some people in order to do so. This makes sense, even without citing the Zeroth Law, because the First and Second Laws as written obviously cannot always be obeyed and require adjudication of conflicts. The First Law wouldn't be inconsistent if it respected the doing/allowing distinction, but the movie is quite explicit that sometimes a robot must decide who it will allow to come to harm.

Posted by Matt Weiner at July 21, 2004 03:39 PM

Matt writing about robots. Huh.

Posted by: Bluebeard at July 21, 2004 06:03 PM