Runaround (story)

"Runaround" is a science fiction short story by American writer Isaac Asimov, featuring his recurring characters Powell and Donovan. It was written in October 1941 and first published in the March 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It appears in the collections I, Robot (1950), The Complete Robot (1982), and Robot Visions (1990). "Runaround" features the first explicit appearance of the Three Laws of Robotics, which had previously only been implied in Asimov's robot stories.

Artificial intelligence researcher Marvin Minsky said: "After 'Runaround' appeared in the March 1942 issue of Astounding [now Analog Science Fiction and Fact ], I never stopped thinking about how minds might work."[1]

"Runaround"
AuthorIsaac Asimov
CountryUnited States
LanguageEnglish
SeriesRobot series
Genre(s)Science fiction
Published inAstounding Science Fiction
Publication typePeriodical
PublisherStreet & Smith
Media typePrint (magazine, hardback, paperback)
Publication dateMarch 1942

Plot dilemma

As in many of Asimov's Robot stories, conflicts in the application of the Three Laws of Robotics is the subject of the plot. In contrast to the majority of such stories, in which the lexical ambiguities of the Laws are employed to fashion a dilemma, the robot featured in "Runaround" is actually following the Laws as they were intended.

The plot revolves around the 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 Laws.[2]

The robot finds it impossible to obey both the Second Law and the Third Law at the same time, and this freezes it in a loop of repetitive behavior.[2]

Plot summary

In 2005, Powell, Donovan, and Robot SPD-13, also known as "Speedy" are sent to Mercury to restart operations at a mining station which was abandoned ten years before.

They discover that the photo-cell banks that provide life support to the base are short on selenium and will soon fail. The nearest selenium pool is seventeen miles away, and since Speedy can withstand Mercury’s high temperatures, Donovan sends him to get it. Powell and Donovan become worried when they realize that Speedy has not returned after five hours. They use a more primitive robot to find Speedy and try to analyze what happened to it.

When they eventually find Speedy, they discover he is running in a huge circle around a selenium pool. Further, they notice that "Speedy’s gait [includes] a peculiar rolling stagger, a noticeable side-to-side lurch".[2] When Speedy is asked to return with the selenium, he begins talking oddly, e.g. "Hot dog, let’s play games," "You catch me and I catch you; no love can cut our knife in two," and quoting Gilbert and Sullivan. Speedy continues to show symptoms that, if he were human, would be interpreted as drunkenness.

Powell eventually realizes that the selenium source contains unforeseen danger to the robot. Under normal circumstances, Speedy would observe the Second Law, but because Speedy was so expensive to manufacture, and "not a thing to be lightly destroyed", the Third Law had been strengthened "so that his allergy to danger is unusually high". As the order to retrieve the selenium was casually worded with no particular emphasis, Speedy cannot decide whether to obey it, following the Second Law, or protect himself from danger, following the strengthened Third Law. He then oscillates between positions: farther from the selenium, in which the order outweighs the need for self-preservation, and nearer the selenium, in which the compulsion of the third law is bigger and pushes him back. The conflicting Laws cause what is basically a feedback loop which confuses him to oscillate around the point where the two compulsions are of equal strength, which makes Speedy appear inebriated.

Under the Second Law Speedy should obey Powell's order to return to base, but that fails, as the conflicted positronic brain cannot accept new orders. An attempt to increase the compulsion of the Third Law fails. They place oxalic acid, which can destroy Speedy, in his path, but it merely causes Speedy to change his route until he finds a new equilibrium between the avoid-danger law and the follow-order law.

The only thing that trumps both the Second Law and Third Law is the First Law of Robotics which states that "a robot may not...allow a human being to come to harm." Therefore, Powell decides to risk his life by going out in the heat, hoping that the First Law will force Speedy to overcome his cognitive dissonance to save Powell's life. The plan works, and the team is able to repair the photocell banks.

Footnotes

  1. ^ Technology; A Celebration of Isaac Asimov - New York Times. Nytimes.com (1992-04-12). Retrieved on 2013-11-02.
  2. ^ a b c Asimov, Isaac (1950). "Runaround". I, Robot (The Isaac Asimov Collection ed.). New York City: Doubleday. p. 40. ISBN 0-385-42304-7. This is an exact transcription of the laws. They also appear in the front of the book, and in both places there is no "to" in the 2nd law.

External links

Preceded by:
"Robbie"
Included in:
The Complete Robot
I, Robot
Series:
Robot series
Foundation Series
Followed by:
"Reason"
Robot ethics

Robot ethics, sometimes known by the short expression "roboethics", concerns ethical problems that occur with robots, such as whether robots pose a threat to humans in the long or short run, whether some uses of robots are problematic (such as in healthcare or as 'killer robots' in war), and how robots should be designed such as they act 'ethically' (this last concern is also called machine ethics). Robot ethics is a sub-field of ethics of technology, specifically information technology, and it has close links to legal as well as socio-economic concerns. Researchers from diverse areas are beginning to tackle ethical questions about creating robotic technology and implementing it in societies, in a way that will still ensure the safety of the human race. While the issues are as old as the word robot, serious academic discussions started around the year 2000. Robot ethics requires the combined commitment of experts of several disciplines, who have to adjust laws and regulations to the problems resulting from the scientific and technological achievements in Robotics and AI. The main fields involved in robot ethics are: robotics, computer science, artificial intelligence, philosophy, ethics, theology, biology, physiology, cognitive science, neurosciences, law, sociology, psychology, and industrial design.

Run around

Run around or runaround may refer to:

"Runaround" (story), a short story by Isaac Asimov

Runaround (game show), an American children's television show

Runaround (UK game show), an adaptation of the U.S. show

Run around coil, a heat exchanger system where an intermediate coil is used to transfer heat

Run around, a maneuver for reversing a train's direction; see Glossary of rail terminology

Run-around loop, a track arrangement allowing this maneuver

Runaround (typography), where text conforms to an irregular shape or intrusion

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