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At the end of the film, Bicentennial Man, the NDR-series robot known as Galatea,

Unplugs the life support system for Portia Martin after the death of her husband, Andrew.

How is she able to do this, given the limitations imposed by the Three Laws?

  • An excellent question. On a semi-related note, I've been struggling to get my hands on the screenplay for at least five years. – Valorum May 2 '15 at 23:01
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I see this as having been left intentionally vague by the screenwriter. That said, reading through the various film reviews and film interviews, there seem to be two distinct schools of thought on the subject;

Her "Three Laws" programming is still in full operation.

Portia's life without Andrew was clearly intolerable. In an earlier scene, set a number of years before her death, she had already spoken about how she was considering refusing further age-defying treatments. It's pretty reasonable to assume that even if Galatea was still fully under the control of the three laws, she would be able to comprehend "intolerable distress" and could therefore be disconnect the life-support without breaking the first law preventing harm. She's simply weighed up the amount of harm on both sides and is plumping for the lesser.

Her "Three Laws" programming is broken.

Andrew may well have found a way to allow other robots to circumvent the Three Laws. In the film he's clearly aware of how to reprogram other robots as well as having studied his own brain for decades. It's quite plausible that as well as having upgraded Galatea's physiology to be indistinguishable from that of a human, Andrew has also spent some time upgrading her Positronic brain to be more human as well. This would include the ability to cause harm to humans, ignore direct orders and allow self-harm.


Personally I lean toward the first interpretation. Someone living on life-support well past their normal lifespan (and whose sole reason for hanging on has disappeared) would be an obvious candidate for assisted suicide.

  • There is another option, she did not know the consequences of unplugging the machine. She was just given firm instructions to pull the plug and not try to figure out where it goes or was lied to about what it does. – John Meacham May 2 '15 at 23:59
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    @JohnMeacham - That seems vanishingly unlikely. She's taking care of them as a nurse. What kind of nurse programming doesn't include a basic course in human physiology? – Valorum May 3 '15 at 0:04
  • I assumed that the NDR series, once sentient, was no longer bound by the laws. What I want to know is how Andrew made Galatea sentient by the end. – Omegacron May 4 '15 at 16:10
  • @Omegacron - It's not explained. The best I can come up with is that Andrew is, by that point the world's leading expert on robotics, a mental giant in the field with a unique perspective on the subject, near-limitless time, near-limitless money and the ability to concentrate single-mindedly on the subject for decades at a time. – Valorum May 4 '15 at 16:16
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I believe that, by that point, Portia's own death is imminent. (She is, after all, extremely old.)

If she is going to die anyway, then from a First Law perspective turning off life support does not count as directly injuring a human being anymore. (The action has become neutral, as the outcome is clearly seen to be the same whether or not the action is taken.)

Then the other clause kicks in; the longer she lives on life-support (and without Andrew), the more she suffers, so "... or, through inaction, allow a human to be harmed" implies turning off life-support. (Not doing so would here be "inaction".)

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