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I have read Asimov's books and there are the three laws. How did robots overcome this set of rules, seeing Foundation where Demerzel is able to kill.

I thought that this happened when they searched for a way to make long travels where humans have to be killed and revived and to make this possible the robot had to be able to kill, but I can't find the story where this was told and I don't know if I'm right.

How and when did robots get the ability to kill in Asimov's stories?

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  • 18
    Not sure that the TV version precisely follows the books...
    – Michael
    Sep 12, 2023 at 14:44
  • 4
    Are you specifically asking about the Foundation miniseries?
    – FuzzyBoots
    Sep 12, 2023 at 14:47
  • 20
    If you read the books, how did you miss the Zeroth Law?
    – Paulie_D
    Sep 12, 2023 at 14:56
  • 3
    @Paulie_D depends how many of the books you read and remembered...
    – Michael
    Sep 12, 2023 at 15:04
  • 25
    If this is about TV show Demerzel, please be aware this version is incompatible with book/Asimov Demerzel.
    – Andres F.
    Sep 12, 2023 at 15:58

4 Answers 4

32

In the short story "Escape!", the temporary death of humans during hyperspace travel leads to mental difficulties for the robot ship designer.

However Daneel/Demerzel can kill due to his discovery of the Zeroth Law in the novel Robots and Empire. The Zeroth Law states:

A robot may not injure humanity, or through inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

If a human is judged to be a threat to humanity as a whole, that human may be killed.

This ability of robots to kill humans is demonstrated by Dors Venabili who kills Tamwile Elar with no First Law problems (she dies shortly afterward from an unrelated cause).

I'm not sure however if the Zeroth Law has been acknowledged in the series.

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  • 1
    I don't think he has - but he can
    – Andrew
    Sep 12, 2023 at 16:16
  • 3
    Would he though? Directly kill a person? And continue existing? R. Giskard breaks down even after a very indirect application of the Zeroth Law; imagine if he had directly killed a human!
    – Andres F.
    Sep 12, 2023 at 18:14
  • 11
    Daneel was First minister of the Empire for decades, making it very likely that at one point or another he allowed a human to die through inaction
    – Andrew
    Sep 12, 2023 at 18:35
  • 6
    Dors Venabili kills Tamwile Elar with no First Law problems (she dies shortly afterward from an unrelated cause)
    – Andrew
    Sep 12, 2023 at 20:06
  • 4
    @AndresF. I'm five books into re-reading the Foundation series and I can tell you two things. Asimov isn't as consistent about expressing the laws of robotics as you might think. Throughout his stories, he played with the ideas to see how they'd play out. And it doesn't help that they were written at very different times. Worse, in the 1980s he was integrating the Robots and Foundation universes - so some of the rules changed. Daneel doesn't kill in the Foundation series. He does in Robots and Empire. It would take a master author to rewrite all of the stories to unify the universes.
    – JBH
    Sep 13, 2023 at 3:40
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As has often been noted, most of Asimov's stories are about ways in which the three laws got bent. Here are some examples:

  • "Little Lost Robot" - The robot in question was given a modified version of the first law where the robot was not restricted from possibly harming a human being through inaction, which Susan Calvin pointed out meant that a robot could drop a weight onto a human being, knowing that it could catch the weight in time, and then choose not to catch the weight.
  • The Naked Sun - Elijah Baley points out that "A robot may do nothing that, to its knowledge, will harm a human being; nor, through inaction, knowingly allow a human being to come to harm.", meaning that they can kill with actions that they are unaware will cause harm. I believe the story has a robot fire an arrow in the air, not knowing that the arrow will fall and hit a particular target out of its sight.
  • Solarians told their robots that non-Solarian humans are not humans, and therefore can be harmed.
  • Advanced robots, such as Daneel can weigh the various possible results of actions and, if they feel that the impact is the same, they can choose randomly and feel no guilt.

Specifically addressing the Foundation TV series, Goyer, the writer wanted it to be ambiguous as to whether Demerzel was following the Zeroeth Law or isn't Three Laws compliant, and whether they allowed their personal feelings to influence their decision.

He added: "What I hope people take away from this episode is they're wondering did Demerzel kill Dawn because she was programmed to?

"Because she had to in order to preserve the Genetic Dynasty and he's an aberration? Or is a little bit of that payback for what happened in Episode 8?"

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  • 5
    TV show Demerzel is such a travesty :( There are some things the show does well, but this isn't one of them (and neither is their dismissal of nonviolent courses of action)
    – Andres F.
    Sep 12, 2023 at 16:00
  • 4
    I think the actual murder dynamic in The naked sun is a way better example of how the laws are bent, but is probably a spoiler.
    – bracco23
    Sep 13, 2023 at 10:53
  • 1
    Another plotpoint in The Naked Sun was outfitting spaceships with positronic brains, who would then not recognise other spaceships as being piloted by human beings.
    – SQB
    Sep 13, 2023 at 12:00
  • (Spoiler) I thought I remembered the thing in The Naked Sun was that a robot served poisoned tea to its master, not knowing it was poisoned. The robot then broke down.
    – user253751
    Sep 13, 2023 at 16:54
  • @user253751: This review has theories for two murder attempts and a murder.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Sep 13, 2023 at 17:51
9

There is a loophole to it in Asimov's Evidence. Dr. Susan Calvin thinks that politician Stephen Byerley is a cleverly disguised robot. However, for "privacy" reasons he refuses to submit to x-ray scanning to prove his humanity.

He demonstrates his humanity by punching a heckler during a speech, which of course a first-law-compliant positronic brain cannot do - but Dr. Susan Calvin later concludes: "there is one time when a robot may strike a human being without breaking the First Law. Just one time. [...] When the human to be struck is merely another robot."

Presumably, under such circumstances, he could have "killed" as well.

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  • 4
    Not really a loophole, but more just a magician's obfuscation. Sep 13, 2023 at 14:22
  • 4
    Well, it does also open up that a robot may harm a human being if they believe them to be a robot.
    – FuzzyBoots
    Sep 14, 2023 at 22:31
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Within Asimov's novels, there are two answers.

One is in the story Escape, which was included in I, Robot. I suspect this is the story that you half recall.

US Robotics feed the information on hyperspatial travel to the 'Brain', their positronic supercomputer. It is able to solve the problem and build a hyperdrive ship. The nature of the hyperspace jump is that the travellers arrive fine - but are dead during the jump. The way the problem is presented allows The Brain to solve the problem as they are ok in the end, but does cause something of a psychotic episode that Susan Calvin is confident they can treat.

'This so-called "death", in other words, was a strictly temporary phenomenon. [...] Even with death temporary and its importance depressed, it was enough to unbalance him very gently.'

Some robots, including Demerzel (Daneel), do become able to tolerate death or killing of humans, when they become advanced enough to appreciate the Zeroth law - that a robot may not harm humanity, or through inaction allow humanity to be harmed. This was first appreciated by Giskard in Robots and Empire, and is the scenario when robots are truly able to harm humans.

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  • Does book Daneel/Demerzel ever kill a human though? Honest question, it's been a while since I read through my Asimov collection.
    – Andres F.
    Sep 12, 2023 at 16:01
  • 6
    R. Giskard can barely tolerate altering people's brains, and his long-term plan to make Earth gradually radioactive actually destroys his brain. So I would say even the Zeroth Law doesn't allow a robot to kill a human and continue functioning.
    – Andres F.
    Sep 12, 2023 at 18:52
  • 1
    @AndresF. It's been a long time since I've read them, but isn't there something about how Daneel has a more advanced model of positronic brain than Giskard, and can therefore handle the stress better?
    – Bobson
    Sep 13, 2023 at 13:10
  • @Bobson, that's basically the theme yes. Giskard discovered the law and taught it to Daneel, but was never quite able to accept it himself. Foundation and Earth IIRC.
    – Separatrix
    Sep 14, 2023 at 9:00

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