Wednesday, 20 May 2009

The Relativity of Language, Absolute Reality and the Three Laws of Robotics

While currently reading Robots and Empire, Isaac Asimov's fourth robot novel, I was reminded of how fickle languages really are and how they contribute to relativize our perception and understanding of the world.

I think we often like to believe in the existence of absolutes, whether they be moral or otherwise, even when we make a point of saying that everything isn't black and white. I believe that's the case because there is a certain amount of comfort in the notion of the absolute. Not to mention the fact that relativism can get pretty scary, pretty fast. Besides, we interact with things out in the world every day that resemble some form of absolutes, don't we?

Surely the latter, in and of itself, hints at the problem I am trying to touch upon (and I'll get back to that, don't worry), but even so, what does all of this have to do with Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics?

Let's start from the top, shall I? First, for the benefit of the uninitiated, let's recite the Three Laws as formulated by Asimov (and within his fiction imprinted on the positronic brains of all robots as a form of natural fail safe):
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.

Asimov's Three Laws are clearly hierarchical and seemingly absolute. His robot short stories (found in I, Robot and The Rest of the Robots) function, more or less, as small mathematical and logical riddles, testing the practical applications of these robotic imperatives within a fictional framework. Similarly, these imperatives are also an important part of his robot novels (The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, The Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire), though they are not the focus of these longer narratives in quite the same way. Through most of these stories, while the limits are continuously tested, the Three Laws have nevertheless seemed to be absolute imperatives (in an almost Kantian fashion). That is, up until my current reading of Robots and Empire, where Asimov suddenly throws me a very interesting curve ball. The Three Laws cannot be absolute in the strictest sense, simply because language itself is not absolute.

In the case of the Three Laws of Robotics, the most important question becomes "What is a human being?" Without a definition of that key term, the Laws themselves become nullified for all their logic and hierarchical structure. And language hinges on definitions.

I am reminded of the following quote: "I've been told I love to debate semantics, and this is true: depending on what you mean by love" (my apologies for not having a proper source for it).

This is why I wrote above that my statement that "we interact with things out in the world every day that resemble some form of absolutes", in and of itself, points to this very problem. Because how do we define what an absolute is? And can such a definition possibly be done in an absolute fashion?


  1. M&MS -

    Suggested reading:

    The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism by D.A. Carson