Asimov’s Laws of Robotics — An Economic Perspective
Originally Published: 1/December/2016
Among the immense catalogue of writings that the famous science fiction writer Isaac Asimov has penned, probably his most notable and well known of his passages are on his ‘Laws of Robotics’. These were originally a trio but a fourth, the Zeroth Rule, was also added and it’s these rules that have been influences in the field of robotics, ranging from ethics to practical usage.
The Laws of Robotics are as follows;
The first law is that a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
The second law is that a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
The third law is that a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Finally, the zeroth and forth law, is that a robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
With the premise of the foundation for this article laid, how will the economic implication of these laws affect humankind into the future once robotics and A.I. become more integrated into everyday life of our society?
“Today’s science fiction, is tomorrow’s science fact” — Isaac Asimov
Considering that the laws are based in science fiction, are they actually pertinent as we move into the future where robotics and A.I. become a crutch that humanity will lean on just as we have done, for example, with the advent of the internet?
With such a massive global recognition of these laws, it would seem only logical that they will be repurposed for the reality of things through intensive debate, from the practicality of the laws to the ethics of the laws, all on a spectrum of time that spans the short term to beyond the horizon of the far future. But by observing the laws as they are now and through my own lens of perspective, this has me question that maybe the laws are purely superficial and literary in construction, so when looking at the laws practically are they capable of not only protecting, but also safeguarding humanity indefinitely?
What about the knock on effect that robotics (both positive and negative) will have on humanity in regards to labour forces or the ability to increase free time to pursue more artistic and culturally based objectives?
Will the economy move away from a physical output of goods and services to an economy that puts value on mental output via thoughts and ideas thus giving more weight to the value of data and intellectual property?
Will there be a dual system of economies that measures the use of resources used in physical capabilities (the traditional economy to be worked by machine measured through the current PPF system) and a new economy based on mental faculties with its own intrinsic values and intrinsic resources for mental output (as of now a futurist economy worked by humans with a new cognitive PPF system), and will these separate macro-economies be channelled into one mega-economy with new rules and theories based around it that incorporate human and robotic welfare?
Is science, to a degree, influenced by creativity born from art as well as creativity born from necessity?
Does scientific innovation depend on the economic climate to prosper or decline, and how does the culture of a nation with its years of economic ideology, religion, and importance put on trade/self-sufficiency affect the sudden shift to the use of robots for potential in increased human welfare and standards of living?
All of these questions show just how impactful creativity in any form, and in this case writing, has on the scientific disciplines and how the theoretical invisible hand of economics bridges the gap between literature and science.
Labour in the Near Future
Touched upon earlier in the article, the question that was asked was ‘are the Laws of Robotics taken too literally and on a superficial level?’ The economic impact that robots and A.I. will have on humanity in the near future can be predicted with a modest degree of accuracy, but beyond that timeframe is anyone’s guess as to where this road will take us.
Even today, a move towards a more globalised world is accelerating the innovations in technology to allow more refined and efficient ways of utilising our finite resources in amazingly productive ways to increase output and overall welfare of the world.
As the increase in output is being done through mass specialisation by nationally focusing more so on either labour or services (which is dependent on the costs of production to that nation), it is allowing companies to maximise profits with the ever increasing inclusion of machines. In an extreme case of probability, if all labour is taken over by robotics, a deep distrust of machines will be instilled into those affected directly and the economies all over the world will be shaken as strain on a country’s social welfare system will have a dramatic impact on all those within that nation. Loss of perceived economic value on human workers and, what one could argue is more important; the loss of self-value within one’s self will see a knee jerk reactionary retaliation against a new, cheaper, less error prone, and more efficient workforce.
The economic spectral balance will be knocked incredibly out of kilter. Yes the output will increase and firms will increase profit but to the cost of the human social side. By having less people earning it will at some stage effect the volume of consumers that can purchase goods and services as output of a firm is determined by the amount of spending power and how many consumers they can potentially sell too.
This flies in the face of Asimov’s Laws of Robotics as humans have not come to be harmed directly by robots but have come to be harmed indirectly through economic means.
Honestly, this article has no answers but proposes many questions and has speculative thought of the future in my own viewpoint in conjunction with Asimov’s laws. I’m looking at this through my observation tool that is economics and through that tool I can give a shot at what the future may turn out to be.
Something Extra — Food for Thought: Definition of Being Human or Being Alive
At some stage a robot will become so human in appearance and thought that it will be indistinguishable from an authentic, “organic” human being. Our creations will stand on the same playing field as us to either help or hinder us in pushing further along the evolutionary tree. How will we define whether something is alive or not?
How will we adapt to our creations becoming part of what we are and will our creations be seen as sub-human and be forced to fight us in our potentially terrible treatment of them?
Will the economic resonance of these future robots need to be integrated into our human economy and accounted for through wages, living standards, and the innumerable residual effects they will have on the world and even further?
Through the Laws of Robotics, the safeguarding of humanity is needed at the start but when is the transcendence watershed of robotics and A.I. from being purely machines that aide in our existence, to actually becoming and attaining human status by being looked upon as living?
Is it humanity’s destiny to create something more than we are and fade into obscurity through the sands of time and be known only as the creators as our creations explore the beyond?
Jonathan McEvoy is an Irish based border control post inspector for the Irish Government and Europe Union who took up his role in 2019 in response to British withdrawal of trade agreements, which was a position taken up after time spent working within the financial services sector in Dubai. He is an economics and finance postgraduate from Waterford Institute of Technology and a community stalwart in his home city of Waterford having been elected to serve on many boards of directors around the city in a voluntary capacity. His love of writing has a deep theme of economics in every published article which talk about history, philosophy, finance, politics, and society. His writings are grounded in practical observations away from the theoretical hypothesis of hypothetical potentials. If you are looking for a modern digestible viewpoint on modern economic ideas with a focus practicality and no holding back, he is a writer for you.
Find Jonathan on the social platforms @jonathanmcev0y
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