There are at least two Asimov stories that I recall when a robot “harms” a human.

In the bicentennial man at the very beginning the surgeon robot refuses to perform the procedure as it would harm Andrew, however he then proceeds once Andrew tells him he’s not a human being.

In the second, Evidence, Stephen Byerley is implied to have been attacked by a robot programmed to do so, with Susan Calvin implying that’s only possible if the robot is also attacking a robot.

In both cases it is implied that a robot can attack another robot but that it needs to know it is and that for humanoid robots they may not and need to be told.

This opens the loophole possibility of having a robot harm a human thinking it is a humanoid robot.

Has that been addressed by Asimov either through a story or directly in writing anywhere?

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    Wasn't there a scene where Baley faced possible danger at the hands of a Solarian robot because the way Solarian robots were programmed they didn't recognize him as human? (The point being that harm doesn't require the human to be mistaken for a robot, just as not-human.)
    – DavidW
    Jan 21, 2022 at 17:05
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    Would you count "Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn"? Bigman was going to be killed by a robot because the Sirians told it that Bigman wasn't human. Jan 21, 2022 at 17:06
  • @ClaraDiazSanchez That's the point I was aiming for, so if you've got the quote handy go for it.
    – DavidW
    Jan 21, 2022 at 17:07
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    Title brings this to mind: gunnerkrigg.com/?p=209 Jan 22, 2022 at 4:56
  • @DavidW As I recall, the robot handed a bow and arrow to a youth explaining that as a non-Solarian Baley was sub-human so a viable target. In another part of the plot, a robot poisoned a pitcher of water without certainty that it would not be served to a human. However I think the most interesting episode is where Baley arranges for Solarian robots to witness that Olivaw was a robot rather than a human, since that Illustrates Asimov's intention that robots applied the Three Laws based on their understanding of the status of a putative human: not on any absolute test. Jan 22, 2022 at 13:23

1 Answer 1


This is not quite the case of a robot harming a human through thinking it is a humanoid robot, but it is similar - in Lucky Starr and the Rings of Saturn the robot is told that the human is an animal. Starr's sidekick, the ironically named Bigman, was very short. The Sirians were all tall and handsome, and so the Sirian commander, Sten Devoure, was able to order a robot to kill Bigman by saying he wasn't actually human:

Devoure said, "You can't harm a human being, robot. I'm not asking you to do so. But this is not a human being... Look at it, robot. It talks and has a human shape, but so do you and you're no human. I can prove it's not human. Did you ever see a full-grown human so small? That proves it's not human. It's an animal and it is—it is harming me. You must destroy it."

Fortunately though, Lucky Starr managed to save the day before Bigman was ripped into pieces.

  • I wonder if Asimov meant this as an allegory for slavery -- the slave owners rationalized it by considering black people as less than human.
    – Barmar
    Jan 22, 2022 at 14:25

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