Asimov's ‘Robotics’ FAQ

It is a subject of debate in Nationalist circles as to the real extent of "Jewish genius." To what degree is the undoubtedly disproportionate Jewish influence in a nation's intellectual life the product of innate racial talents? Or is that influence merely the result of academic parasitism and mutual Jewish promotion? The purist Nationalist attitude is, of course, that the talents or otherwise of an alien race is irrelevant because a nation's destiny is its own, and their presence is improper whatever the case, but still we have an interesting topic for discussion.

Consider, by way of example, the promotion by the British Broadcasting Corporation's Radio 3, supposedly the epitome of British culture, of Gershwin and Bernstein as a) American and b) classicists, when in fact they are neither. It is not merely a question of them supplanting Beethoven, Williams or Vivaldi, but of relegating to obscurity greater talents of European blood. More significantly, for a cacophony of sound is as naught to scientific confusion and disarray, we are subjected to the deification of Einstein, whose questionable theories are treated as if they had been given on tablets of stone; the disastrous influence of the cocaine-inspired ramblings of Freud, a.k.a. King Anus; the mendacious anthropological convolutions of Boas; and this unholy trinity is but the tip of a diabolical iceberg, displacing the greater minds and honest instincts of scientists of European stock whose names we have never heard.

So, shorn of mutual back-slapping, hand-ups, Oscars and the like, and clambering onto the shoulders of giants with such unseemly alacrity that the giants themselves sink into relative obscurity, what remains of Hebrew "genius"? Here Isaac Asimov, Lithuanian Jew, writer of entertaining fantasies about robots etcetera, discloses the origins of the etcetera in an account which, should there be any doubt, is reproduced verbatim. And in order not the prejudice the reader let it only be said that there is evidence to suggest that nothing remains at all except for a tenuous grasp of reality and a glib tongue.



Isaac Asimov

Robotics has become a sufficiently well developed technology to warrant articles and books on its history and I have watched this in amazement, and in some disbelief, because I invented it.

No, not the technology; the word.

In October 1941, I wrote a robot story entitled "Runaround," first published in the March 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, in which I recited for the first time, my Three Laws of Robotics. Here they are:

  1. A robot must 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 those orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence, except where such protection would conflict with the First or Second Law.

These laws have been quoted many times by me in stories and essays, but what is much more surprising is that they have been quoted innumerable times by others (in all seriousness) as something that will surely be incorporated in robots when they become complex enough to require it.

As a result, in almost any history of the development or robotics, there is some mention of me and of the Three Laws.

It is a queer feeling to know that I have made myself into a footnote in the history of science and technology for having invented the foundation of a science that didn't exist at the time – and that I did it at the age of twenty-one.

The Three Laws, and the numerous stories I have written that have dealt with robots, have given many people – from enthusiastic teenage readers to sophisticated editors of learned magazines in the field – the idea that I am an expert on robots and computers. As a result, I am endlessly being asked questions about robotics.

What I will do, then, is write a question-and-answer essay on the subject. It will take care of just about all the major questions I am forever being asked and it should make it unnecessary for anyone to have to ask me any questions on the subject again.1

  1. Dr. Asimov, how did you come to be such an expert in the field of robotics?

    Alas, I am not an expert, and I never have been. I don't know how robots work in any but the vaguest way – For that matter, I don't know how a computer works in any but the vaguest way, either. I have never worked with either robots or computers, and I don't know any details about how robots or computers are currently being used in industry.

    I don't take pride in this. I merely present it as a fact. I would like to know all about robots and computers but I can only squeeze so much into my head, and though I work at it day and night with remorseless assiduity, I still only manage to get a small fraction of the total sum of human knowledge into my brain.

  2. In that case, Dr. Asimov, how did you come to write so many robot stories, considering that you know nothing about the subject?

    It never occurred to me that I had to. While I was reading science fiction in the 1930s, I came across a number of robot stories and learned what I had to know on the subject from them.

    I found out that I didn't like stories in which robots were menaces or villains because those stores were technophobic and I was technophilic. I did like stories in which the robots were presented sympathetically, as in Lester del Rey's "Helen O'Loy" or Eando Binder's "I, Robot."

    What's more, I didn't think a robot should be sympathetic just because it happened to be nice. It should be engineered to meet certain safety standards as any other machine should in any right-thinking technological society. I therefore began to write stories about robots that were not only sympathetic, but were sympathetic because they couldn't help it. That was my contribution to this particular sub-genre of the field.

  3. Does that mean you had the Three Laws of Robotics in mind when you began writing your robot stories?

    Only in a way. The concept was in my mind but I wasn't smart enough to put it into the proper words.

    The first robot story I wrote was "Robbie" in May 1939, when I was nineteen. (It appeared in the September 1940 Super – Science Stories, under the title of "Strange Playfellow.") In it, I had one of my characters say, about the robot hero, "He just can't help being faithful and loving and kind. He's a machine – made so." That was my first hint of the First Law.

    In "Reason," my second robot story (April 1941, Astounding), I had a character say, "Those robots are guaranteed to be subordinate." That was a hint of the Second Law.

    In "Liar," my third robot story (May 1941, Astounding), I gave a version of the First and Second Laws, when I said the "fundamental law" of robots was: "On no conditions is a human being to be injured in any way, even when such injury is directly ordered by another human."

    It wasn't however, till "Runaround," my fourth robot story, that it all came together in the Three Laws in their present wording, and that was because John Campbell, the late great editor of Astounding, quoted them to me. It always seemed to me that John invented those Laws, but whenever I accused him of that, he always said that they were in my stories and I just hadn't bothered to isolate them. Perhaps he was right.

  4. But you say you invented the term robotics. Is that right?

    Yes. John Campbell, as best as I can remember, did not use the word in connection with the Three Laws. I did, however, in "Runaround," and I believe that was its first appearance in print.

    I did not know at the time that it was an invented term. The science of physics routinely uses the -ics suffix for various branches, as in mechanics, dynamics, electrostatics, hydraulics, and so on. I took it for granted that the study of robots was robotics.

    It wasn't until a dozen years later, at least, that I became aware that robotics was not listed in the second edition of Websters New International Dictionary or (when I quickly checked) in any of the other dictionaries I consulted. What's more, when Websters's third edition was published, I looked up robotics at once and still didn't find it.

    I therefore began saying that I had invented the word, for it did indeed seem to me that I had done so.

    In 1973, there appeared The Barnhart Dictionary of New English Since 1963, published by Harper & Row. It includes the word robotics and quoted a passage from an essay of mine in which I claim to have invented it. That's still just me saying so, but at least the lexicographers didn't cite earlier uses by someone else.

    The word is now well established and it is even used in the titles of magazines that are devoted to the technology of robots. To be candid, I must admit that it pleases me to have invented a word that has entered the scientific vocabulary.2

1. But I am dreaming. The questions will continue, I know.

2. Psychohistory, which I also invented, has entered the scientific vocabulary, but, alas, not in the sense of my invention.

Isaac Asimov, Counting the Eons, Granada Publishing, London 1984 pp. 30-33.

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