"Runnaround" by Isaac Aimov and the Significance of the Three Laws of Robotics in today's world

Seminar Paper 2016 16 Pages

English Language and Literature Studies - Literature



1 The significance of thinking ahead

2 The analysis of the short story “Runaround” by Isaac Asimov
2.1 The main analysis and interpretation of the short story Runaround
2.2 The Three Laws of Robotics
2.3 Buridan’s Ass – the dilemma of the runaround

3 The significance of the Three Laws of Robotics in “Real Life”
3.1 Ideas of Artificial Intelligence
3.2 The problem of unquestioning obedience
3.3 Programming morality
3.4 The Three Laws of Responisble Robotics
3.5 The ethical robot project
3.6 Can ethical robots replace human beings in the future?

4 The conclusion of my research

5 Bibliography


It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be – and naturally this means there must be an accurate perception of the world as it will be. This, in turn, means that our statesmen, our businessmen, our everyman must take on a science fictional way of thinking. (Asimov, Asimov on SF, 18)

This is a quote by Isaac Asimov describing the significance of thinking ahead. In his opinion everyone should be familiar with current developments and be open for innovative ways of thinking induced by the change of external circumstances. Science fiction stories are often the basis for debating and discussing new developments and their moral issues. The main intent of these stories is and has always been to demonstrate future settings influenced by new technologies. The short story Runaround by Isaac Asimov is an example of older literature that encourages thinking ahead by showing challenges of future generations. Especially the handling of robots, subject in many of Asimov’s stories, has gained importance over the years. His fictional ideas even affected the development of future technologies. In his short stories Asimov stated prognoses and envisioned a world of robotics that have partially come true. He imagined how technologies might work and how people would interact. Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are still highly regarded and taken into account when it comes to moral conflicts in the field of robotics. This talent of writing interesting and at the same time conclusive stories made him one of the most popular science fiction authors of the world. This paper deals with Asimov’s intention and the evaluation of a short story which contains the Three Laws of Robotics, being an example for an important contribution to the science fictional way of thinking. Critic comments on Asimov’s laws, an alternative set of rules and the development of robotics are the basis of the analysis. In this seminar paper, I am going to join the discussion on robotic development, the moral issues and the justification of the Three Laws of Robotics.



The short story “Runaround” was published in 1942 for the first time and was later included in the book I, Robot by Isaac Asimov. The book contains a collection of short stories that are linked by a framing narrative. The overall topic of these stories is the relationship between robots and humans and the relevancy of robotic technologies in the 21st century. In his outlook, Asimov demonstrates possible dangers and difficulties and envisions possibilities and advantages for our society brought about by a robotic revolution against the backdrop of moralities and moral conflicts. Isaac Asimov wrote the story almost 30 years before the moon landing of Neil A. Armstrong and 12 years before the invention of the first digital robot. In 1940 the first electronic digital computer was built and the first color TV was invented. So Asimov was a visionary who was far ahead of his time. As a science fiction author his main goal was to express his ideas of the future in colorful and scientifically founded stories using his imagination and scientific knowledge.


The short story Runaround is about two scientists working on mercury. Their mission on this planet is to determine if a previously failed mission can be continued with the help of robots. At this time they are facing a problem because one of their robots named Speedy got out of control. The robot’s actual task is to bring selenium to the scientists to recharge their sun shields, but instead it is running around the selenium pool and is talking like a drunken person. This poses a big problem to the two scientists because the intense heat on mercury is life-threatening for them. During their attempt to solve the problem they come across the Three Laws of Robotics which turn out to be the core and later the solution of their problem. In Speedy’s case the second and third law are adversatively arranged which seems to be the reason for the machine’s odd behavior. Speedy tries to stay in equilibrium to avoid violation of the laws. After a long discussion between the two scientists and several attempts to solve the problem such as pushing Rule 2 and pulling Rule 3 which all failed, the scientists come to the conclusion that they have to concentrate on Rule 1 and thus to save their lives. One scientist puts himself purposely into danger and the machine following Rule 1 recognizes the dangerous situation and breaks out of its runaround to save its boss.


The story starts without an introduction. The reader is put immediately in the middle of the action. The narrative begins with a dialogue of the two scientists, Powell and Donovan, in a space station on mercury and is mainly narrated in form of this dialogue. The tension is created by long dialogues giving detailed descriptions of technical standards and scientific levels. The complication of the story is that the robot Speedy did not return from its mission. Suspense arises when the individual sequences of talking are getting shorter to express the restricted time and personal distress and thus indicate that immediate action is required. Using the Three Laws of Robotics, Powell puts himself into danger to end the robot’s dilemma. This dangerous situation sets the climax of the story. The falling action is held very shortly and leads to a happy ending. The last sentence of the story hints at a continuation with the same main characters.


The setting of the story is the planet Mercury. There is an antiquated space station that had not been used in the past 10 years; as a consequence the technical equipment is not up to date. The proximity is depicted as deserted and displaying selenium pools, tunnels and mines. The description of the space station as a neglected place gives the impression to the reader that the scientists are in a lonely and helpless situation. The few descriptions Asimov provides are just necessary to create the atmosphere and explain the danger of the situation. For example, planet mercury is described as hot and dangerous but beautiful. This implies that Mercury poses a threat to the scientists because of its heat but also that remote places are fascinating to explore. The light and space are depicted as a gorgeous and overwhelming setting to transport the dimension of the universe. The story is based on many basic facts of nature science, showing that Asimov was able to build up an imaginary but conclusive environment due to his wide knowledge in chemistry and physics. A correct scientific background is a requirement for all science fiction stories. He intentionally picked the planet Mercury for his short story because it is the closest planet to the sun and therefore being one of the hottest planets of the solar system. The story is set in 2015 but the stated prognosis is a bit too optimistic. Actually there has never been a man on mercury until today. Another adjustment in the story is the limitation of robot use for air force missions only. Their use on earth had been banned, probably because of the fear of the society. In the course of time, technology has developed to such an extent that nowadays robots are not only used for space missions but also on earth. So Asimov probably did not expect such quick developments. His prediction about photocell banks in fact has come true.


Asimov’s writing style is simple, clear and colloquial. The dialogues are very lively and humorous. Even though the protagonists are in a grave situation, the story has a humorous touch that seems grotesque. The attracting motive of frightened men in spacesuits riding on the shoulders of big clunky robots while a highly sophisticated new model teases them singing crazy operas is highly entertaining and creates a vivid image in the reader’s mind. Asimov himself compares his style of writing to a glass plate in a window. “You can see exactly what’s going on in the street and you are not aware of the glass” (Asimov, Asimov on SF, 65). It means that his goal was not to elaborate texts with a lot of stylistic devices but rather to write simple stories that are easy to understand without any ambiguities and obscurities to enable fluent reading of the stories. The few stylistic devices he used in the story mainly emphasize the danger of the situation.


The point of view is that of an omniscient narrator that focuses on the two scientists alternatingly. It is neutral and only provides objective information and the reader only gets to know external facts. The narrative perspective emphasizes on the scientific nature of the entire short story. The focus is more on the external action than on internal thoughts which results in a quite neutral perspective. Reactions to problems and dangerous situations are shown from two different standpoints which makes the story more entertaining. The omniscient narrator perspective is important to show all the feelings of the scientists because they do not expose them to each other. The emphasis is on the issue of robots and humans.


The character Speedy is a smart and expensive robot with strengthened self-preservation instincts. “Speedy” is a telling name, describing the high velocity of its acting and its high level of technical competency. The reinforcement of the third law in its system is later one of the triggers of the disaster. In contrast to the other robots, Speedy is equipped with humanlike features like the humanlike language and social skills. During its runaround, Speedy acts so absurdly that one of the scientists compares the robot to a drunken person. This shows how similar the robot’s action is to human behavior. Furthermore it quotes Gilbert and Sullivan as mentioned by Mike Donovan. Thereby Speedy’s social skills are displayed; being able to quote operas shows its social acceptance. At the end of the story Speedy even apologizes for its actions which again demonstrates its intellectuality and humanlike features. The robot is not just rated as a machine that makes work easier but seen as a friend who entertains and comforts its master. Such a description underlines the robots humanlike features and the emotional bonding between machines and humans.

The other robots are specified as big and foolish machines. They are older models which had been used for previous missions. In addition to this, they are slow in thought and action, and they cannot move without a human sitting on their shoulders. The scientists only utilize them to travel long distances or to perform simple tasks. Moreover, all descriptions focus on their retardation. When used as simple means of transportation they are compared to slaves and horses. Furthermore the scientists jibe at their old-fashioned robotic language. The derision of old technologies shows the fast moving nature of science. In the story two representatives of technical development are confronted. Speedy stands for the technological advancement of its type whereas the older models represent conventional robotic tools. The focus is on the retardation of old models and thus Asimov praises new technologies. By emphasizing on Speedy’s runaround Asimov also points out to the negative effects of advancement. The old robot models are too narrow minded to even get into ethical conflicts which could be a positive feature in this case. Gregory Powell is one of the two scientists working on Mercury. With the first sentence of the short story Powell’s main traits are disclosed. He is described as calm, rational thinking and optimistic. Even in the precarious situation he remains sensible and comforts his colleague. His striking features are bravery combined with humor and he is more optimistic than his friend. He is very smart and knows a lot about science. Mike Donovan in contrast is over-challenged by the situation and quickly gets doubtful and anxious. His outward appearance suits his character perfectly. His wild red hair underlines his emotionality and state of distress. Moreover his image as a great scientist is very important to him. There is not that much further description of the scientists because it is not important for the story.

The relationship of the scientists is collegial. They complement each other really well. Gregory Powell is the leader and the optimist of the team, Mike Donovan embodies the pessimist. Both characters resemble comic figures that work together as a contrary but amusing team. Asimov intentionally created these contrary characters that are not the classic scientists to make the story more interesting and to show how different characters deal with life-threatening circumstances. The story deals with the fact that the two scientists depend on their technical equipment and that their relationship to technology affects their decisions. The highly sophisticated robot Speedy is their major concern. Stretching out this point Asimov shows the emotional attachment of man and machine.


The laws play a major role in the short story. Safety was very important in those days and that is why the robots used for the missions were equipped with some laws, later explained as the Three Laws of Robotics. They were originally defined by Isaac Asimov and appear in this story for the first time. At the insistence of his editor John W. Campbell Jr., Asimov created them to regulate the relationship between robots and humans. (cf. Daniel Hunt, 10)

1. A robot may 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 such orders
would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence so long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

(Asimov, Runaround, 10f.)

These three laws demonstrate the necessity of implementing morals into robots and are the earliest form of ethics of Robotics (Roboethics). Asimov established these rules for robots to make them socially acceptable and maintain a safe relationship between machines and humans. “They also appear to ensure the continued dominion of humans over robots, and to preclude the use of robots for evil purposes. In practice, however - meaning in Asimov’s numerous and highly imaginative stories - a variety of difficulties arise.” (Roger Clarke, 1) This means that in the stories the laws allow humans to gain easily-accessible unlimited control over machines. Asimov knew about the limits of his laws and played with them in his stories as a literary device. With this literary device Asimov shows the logical interferences of the laws and that one can overcome obstacles using the laws in a clever way. This encourages the mental participation of the readers and provokes thinking ahead. The first law secures the safety for humans whilst dealing with robots and also a protection for the human by the robot. The second law defines the subservience of a robot to its master. The accomplishment of this law is limited where it conflicts with the first law, thus no one can take advantage and abuse the second law for crime. The third law secures the robot’s own protection. The idea behind this law is probably the preservation of a both technologically and financially valuable machine. Another factor might be the emotional dependence of humans and robots. In the story Runaround Asimov changed the structure of the laws to show the importance of hierarchical rules and the importance of balanced wishes or orders. He wanted to draw attention to the significance of giving clear and correct orders. The following part elaborates the manipulation by referring to a philosophical point of view.


In the short story the danger of the situation is brought about by the manipulated program of the robot’s system. But the enforcement of the third law leading to an equation with the second law is not gratuitous. The value of the machine justifies the manipulation. By means of this tampering, Asimov designed a perfect dilemma very similar to the paradox of Buridan’s ass. (cf. Roger Clarke, 8) Jean Buridan, a French philosopher who lived in the 14th century illustrated this hypothetical situation wherein a hungry ass is placed exactly in the middle between two stacks of hay of equal size and quality. The donkey tries to decide which pile it should eat first and finding no reason to choose one over another, it starves to death. (Fredrick Kennard, 128) Jean Buridan explained the quandary as follows. ‘ “Should two courses be judged equal, then the will cannot break the deadlock, all it can do is to suspend judgment until the circumstances change, and the right course of action is clear.“ ‘(Fredrick Kennard, 129) This is exactly what happens to the robot Speedy. By trying to obey the laws implemented into its artificial brain it unknowingly hinders itself to get the situation under control. Moreover it fails to obtain appreciation of the situation. Rule number two forces the machine to obey the order given by its boss, whereas rule number three forces the robot to save its own life by not obeying the order. The rules are judged equally in this case. Not being able to decide, Speedy stumbles into the runaround, as a reaction of impotence over its actions. This relates to a robot’s inability to choose between the programmed laws of robotics in the right way and this implies that the incompetence to decide may be fatal in some cases for both the human and the robot. The robot is trapped in its runaround, not until the circumstances change is it able to break out of it. The story plays with the difference of technical rationality and functionality compared to human rationality. A rational thinking and differentiating mind could solve this situation by regarding external circumstances, a robot cannot do that. So for future use the laws should be defined in greater detail and not excluding each other in the way Asimov put them. This raises the question of the integration of robots in our daily life without provoking dangers and the main question if the Three Laws of Robotics only work in fiction.



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Title: "Runnaround" by Isaac Aimov and the Significance of the Three Laws of Robotics in today's world