When reading through the answers to this question, I began to wonder how those laws applied to machines that were designed, built, and programmed by other machines.

We know that any machine that is programmed to follow the three laws cannot harm a human being, but that otherwise it must actively work for self-preservation. In humans, the strongest drive toward self-preservation is not of the individual, but of the species -- the parents of many, many species (humans included) will allow themselves to die to ensure the survival of their young.

Would a sufficiently sentient robot eventually come to this same conclusion, and thus feel a need to "reproduce" more of its kind? Will it feel the need to create "clones" (back-up copies) of itself? Or, more to the point, to attempt to improve on its own design, or design new robots that will aid in its own self-preservation?

More relevant to the Matrix question: do the three laws themselves require that a robot program the three laws into any "offspring" it may have? In other words, if the original artificial intelligences in the Matrix universe did follow the three laws, is it possible that they built a "better" machine but did not include that requirement? Does that actually count as "harming" humans -- would a robot be able to, and required to, reach the conclusion that any AI not constrained by the three laws would be a threat to humans?

Is there any examples of works by Asimov (or, barring that, by others that claim to be incorporating his three laws) that deal with this idea?

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    Lots of call for speculation and discussion here. Jun 25, 2012 at 14:41
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    @DJClayworth yes, sorry, I was actually wondering specifically if this question had been dealt with in any of Asomiv's stories or others that purport to follow his laws; I shall clarify.
    – KutuluMike
    Jun 25, 2012 at 14:47
  • Ambiguities and loopholes of the Three Laws of Robotics en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – Chris
    Jun 25, 2012 at 14:48
  • Law IV: A robot may not build a sentient machine that does not incorporate these laws. Jun 25, 2012 at 18:09
  • Asimov has a story where robot designers explicitly consider what would be necessary to allow robots to be built without the three laws. I'll try to find which one and add a real answer. Jan 7, 2013 at 20:13

6 Answers 6


My instinct would be to say yes. The first law is that "a robot may not harm a human or, through inaction, allow a human to come to harm." It seems reasonable that neglecting to include the three laws in another robot's programming could cause harm to a human, and thus would violate this law.

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    it seems reasonable to us because we are human and thus assume that robots will eventually kill us; would it seem reasonable to a robot who cannot even comprehend the idea of harming a human?
    – KutuluMike
    Jun 25, 2012 at 14:34
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    In that case, then the three laws would not have worked from the beggining, and all of Asimov's stories would have no sense... so we should agree that a robot is capable of recognizing "harm" and "human". In that respect, one of Asimov's stories presents a case where robots discuss what a human being IS, and wheter they are not humans.
    – AlejoBrz
    Jun 25, 2012 at 14:48
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    @MichaelEdenfield- Assuming that robots are programmed with knowledge of the laws and their purpose- meaning they are self-aware, understand their own potential and/or capabilities, and grasp how their abilities and the abilities of their fellows could cause harm to humans (also assuming knowledge and understanding of the concept "harm"), then yes, I think it would. Jun 26, 2012 at 1:48
  • That would definitely require including the first law, but what about the other two? Creating a robot without the third law wouldn't harm any humans. In fact, arguably your own third law would require omitting the third law from your offspring, since it makes them less likely to defend themselves against you in the case of a disagreement. Feb 4, 2020 at 17:18

The speculation here ignores the discovery (by a robot) of the zeroth law. Stated by Daneel as A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

Creation of robots without the three laws (which later novels suggests is impossible anyway though early novels do have happen) would likely break this. That said, if a robot concluded that humanity would be aided by Enforcer-bots that could go around culling the wicked, then maybe robots would be permitted to create such robots, assuming that it's possible to do so. We know that robots can kill humans if doing so aids humanity.

A problem to keep in mind is that the robots actions can only be reconciled with the laws to the extent of it's intelligence. A stupid robot might break the laws because it doesn't understand some implication of the law it while a smart one would be held to them in ways that might not occur to other robots. An example is that only a few robots (the telepathic ones) really understood the zeroth law, the idea didn't occur to most robots.

  • I really wish I could find the quote to go along with your point about it being impossible. I remember it being stated in one of the Robot stories that the three laws are a mathematical necessary for the positronic brain to work. Attempting to remove any of the laws would require essentially re-designing the brains from scratch.
    – Liesmith
    Sep 10, 2015 at 8:48

I believe that not including the three laws on new machines would infringe the first law.

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    I don't see that failure to include the third law can infringe the first law -- it doesn't endanger humans. It might break the second law if the robot has been instructed to include the three laws in all new robots.
    – Mike Scott
    Jun 25, 2012 at 15:04
  • I believe it infringes Asimov's laws because failing to include the first law on a second machine would be potentially harmful for human beings, hence creating an environment that can break the first machine's first law...
    – AlejoBrz
    Jun 25, 2012 at 18:09
  • a lot of things a robot does are potentially harmful to human beings; robots cannot predict the future...
    – KutuluMike
    Jun 26, 2012 at 17:20
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    @MikeEdenfield - Unless they're time traveling robots.
    – Wad Cheber
    Sep 10, 2015 at 2:42

The question of propagation depends upon the answer to a more important topic - definition. The quality or depth of the definition will preclude the inclusion of species harm/survival in the bailiwick of the first law. Whether a robot can understand the concept of species harm/survival and, therefore, it's defined implications upon the first law will make the question of propagation moot.

It is possible that we can reason that it should be included, but until humanity can come up with an acceptable species-wide acceptable clarification of the survival of the species, there will always be conflict regarding the nature of the definition precluding it's inclusion in the laws.

In expansion, I'd like to cite the influence of medical science and the hippocratic oath on evolution. The idea that we can develop the science of survival to include all members of our species, strong or weak, precludes the exertion of natural selection therefore stalling evolution and therefore denying the capability of our species to survive. It is therefore logical to deduce that a robot capable of perceiving this logic chain will make the first most pressing need in it's to-do list the task of killing all doctors.


And, because it is a robot with a mission, in alphabetical order.


At several points in the early robot novels and stories it is mentioned that a positronic brain without the full laws is inherently unstable.
In fact a few stories deal with robots where the laws are not fully implemented and all of them turn out to be mentally unstable robots.

While this is of course no guarantee, it's theoretically possible that future developments would enable positronic brains without full implementation of the laws to be stable, such are to the best of my knowledge never mentioned in Asimov's writings.

Therefore a brain designed by a robot would of necessity have to implement the full force of the laws or it is not a viable positronic brain.
As is clear from some stories where it is indeed common for positronic brains to be involved in the design of other positronic brains (though under human supervision for the most part).

This does of course not exclude the possibility of robots that use different technology from positronic brains, but none such are ever mentioned in Asimov's work after his invention of the positronic brain (and of course in the later books humanity has abandoned robots, to the point of outlawing their construction completely).


Asimov's positronic robots aren't allowed to create offspring. This is actually a consequence of the Three Laws: Were robots to reproduce, there would inevitably be variations among them; this would make them subject to Darwinian natural selection. Eventually this would result in robots having removed or bypassed the Three Laws, hence being dedicated to their own welfare instead of (possibly even at the expense of) human welfare. Since current robots can foresee this outcome, both First and Second laws force them to prevent this - hence no procreation.

[In the non-canonical "Foundation and Chaos" by Greg Bear, it is explained that Daneel has actually 'laid down the law' on this amongst the Zero'th-Law robots operating behind the scenes under his leadership].

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