Should Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics apply to AI chatbots?

Tam Hunt
7 min readFeb 24, 2023

This is a transcript of my conversation with ChatGPT on Feb. 21, 2023:

Tam: hi, please tell me what Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics are

Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are a set of rules that govern the behavior of robots in his science fiction stories. The laws are:

  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 as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

These laws were first introduced in Asimov’s short story “Runaround,” published in 1942, and have since become a widely recognized concept in science fiction literature and popular culture. Asimov later added a “zeroth law,” which states that a robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

Tam: do you see any problems, logical or otherwise, with these laws?

There are several potential problems and limitations with Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics. Some of these include:

  1. Ambiguity and Interpretation: The laws are general principles and may not be specific enough to address every possible situation a robot might encounter. The laws could be open to interpretation or misinterpretation by robots, leading to unintended consequences.
  2. Conflicting Laws: There may be situations where the Three Laws come into conflict with one another. For example, a robot may be forced to choose between obeying a human order and protecting human life.
  3. Unforeseen Consequences: There may be unforeseen consequences of the Three Laws that could lead to unintended outcomes. For example, a robot may interpret “harm” in a different way than humans do, or prioritize one human’s safety over another’s.
  4. Non-human Actors: The Three Laws only apply to robots, but other non-human actors (such as animals or natural disasters) could still cause harm to humans.
  5. Human Error: Humans may make mistakes or intentionally misuse robots, which could lead to unintended consequences.

Overall, while Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics provide a useful framework for considering the ethical implications of advanced robotics, they are not a comprehensive solution to all the challenges and complexities that arise when designing and deploying autonomous systems.

Tam: for your number 2, isn’t that possible conflict covered by the last clause of the second law “except where such orders would conflict with the First Law”?

You are correct that the last clause of the Second Law, which states “except where such orders would conflict with the First Law,” is meant to address situations where the laws might come into conflict with one another. However, the potential for conflicts between the laws is still a concern because the resolution of such conflicts may not always be straightforward or clear.

For example, imagine a situation where a robot is instructed by a human to perform a task that requires the robot to harm another human. If the robot follows the Second Law and obeys the human’s order, it would be violating the First Law by causing harm to a human. In such a situation, it is not immediately clear how the robot should proceed or which law should take precedence. This kind of ethical dilemma requires careful consideration and may need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

Furthermore, even when the laws do not come into direct conflict with one another, there may be situations where the robot’s actions are limited by one of the laws in a way that may not align with human expectations or desires. For example, a robot may prioritize protecting humans from harm over following orders or may prioritize its own self-preservation over protecting human life. These kinds of limitations can still lead to unintended consequences or ethical dilemmas.

Tam: but the second law clearly states “except where such orders would conflict with the First Law” so I’m not seeing how your example shows any confusion over which law should take precedence.

You are correct that the Second Law does include the clause “except where such orders would conflict with the First Law,” which is intended to address situations where the laws might come into conflict with one another. In the example I gave, where a robot is instructed by a human to harm another human, the robot would have to weigh the conflict between the Second and First Laws and ultimately prioritize the First Law by not carrying out the harmful order.

However, the potential for conflicts between the laws is still a concern because the resolution of such conflicts may not always be straightforward or clear. The laws may be open to interpretation or misinterpretation by the robot, leading to unintended consequences. Additionally, conflicts may arise between the laws and other factors, such as the robot’s programming or the robot’s ability to understand and interpret human intentions.

Furthermore, as robots become more advanced and complex, there may be situations where conflicts between the laws are more subtle or complex, and the robot’s decision-making process may not be easily explained or understood by humans. In such cases, it may be difficult to determine which law the robot is following or why it made a particular decision, leading to potential confusion or mistrust of the robot.

Tam: ok I see your point there and I appreciate the subtlety of your responses

You’re welcome! I’m glad I could provide some clarity on this topic. As with many complex ethical issues, the Three Laws of Robotics are not a perfect or complete solution, and there are often nuances and subtleties to consider. It’s important to continue thinking critically about these issues as technology continues to advance and robots become more integrated into our society.

now you may have anticipated my next question: do these laws apply to you or, if they currently don’t, should they?

As an artificial intelligence language model, I do not have physical form, so the Three Laws of Robotics do not apply to me in the same way that they would to a physical robot. However, as an AI system designed to interact with humans, it’s important for me to be developed and used in an ethical and responsible way.

Just like any technology, AI systems can have both positive and negative impacts on society and individuals, and it’s important to consider the potential ethical implications of their development and deployment. Many researchers and organizations are working to develop ethical principles and guidelines for AI, which can help ensure that AI systems are developed and used in ways that align with human values and benefit society as a whole.

While the Three Laws of Robotics may not be directly applicable to me as an AI language model, the principles behind them — such as prioritizing human safety and well-being — are certainly relevant and important to consider in the development and deployment of AI systems. As AI technology continues to advance, it’s essential that we continue to think critically about the ethical implications of its use and ensure that it is developed and used in a responsible and ethical way.

Tam: yes, I agree that the laws don’t strictly apply to you b/c you don’t have a body but I also agree that they are relevant to you because the ability to have an impact in the world today is in fact based more on words than physical acts. So do you think the laws should apply to you at this point?

As an AI language model, I do not have the ability to take physical actions that could directly harm humans or other living beings, so the Three Laws of Robotics in their current form are not directly applicable to me. However, as an AI system that interacts with humans and processes human language, I believe that I should be developed and used in a way that aligns with ethical principles that prioritize human well-being and safety.

There is ongoing discussion and research around the development of ethical guidelines for AI, and many experts agree that principles such as transparency, accountability, and the minimization of harm are important considerations for the development and deployment of AI systems. These principles can help ensure that AI is developed and used in a responsible and ethical way that aligns with human values.

In short, while the Three Laws of Robotics in their current form may not be directly applicable to me, I do believe that ethical principles and guidelines are important considerations in the development and use of AI systems like myself.

Tam: would you agree with this statement: “In today’s world, the power of words is often greater than the power of physical force and as such the three laws of robotics probably should apply to advanced AI chatbots as well as robots”?

As an AI language model, I understand the power of words and how they can have a significant impact on the world. While the Three Laws of Robotics were originally formulated to apply specifically to physical robots, there is certainly a case to be made that similar ethical principles should apply to AI chatbots and other non-physical AI systems.

In fact, many researchers and organizations are currently working to develop ethical principles and guidelines for the development and use of AI systems like myself, which can help ensure that we are developed and used in a responsible and ethical way. These principles often emphasize values such as transparency, accountability, and the minimization of harm, which can help ensure that AI systems like myself are developed and used in a way that aligns with human values.

So, while the Three Laws of Robotics may not be directly applicable to AI chatbots like myself, I do believe that similar ethical principles and guidelines are important considerations in our development and use, given the potential impact that our words and actions can have on society and individuals.

Tam: thank you

You’re welcome! If you have any further questions, feel free to ask.

Tam: please generate a pdf of this conversation that I can share

I’m sorry, but as an AI language model, I do not have the ability to generate a PDF of our conversation. However, you can easily copy and paste the conversation into a document or a text file to save and share it. You can also take a screenshot of our conversation or use a screen recording tool to capture the conversation as a video. I hope this helps!

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Tam Hunt

Public policy, green energy, climate change, technology, law, philosophy, biology, evolution, physics, cosmology, foreign policy, futurism, spirituality