Fun With Permutations and Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics

I’m not a big fan of science fiction, but I know enough to know that Isaac Asimov was one of the great science fiction novelists of the 20th century. The following was written by him in the October 1980 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and was reprinted in his book Counting the Eons, which was published in 1983. (I’m now holding the battered and torn pages of my copy of this book; I devoured Asimov’s musings on mathematics and science when I was young.)

Robotics has become a sufficiently well development technology to warrant articles and books on its history and I have watched this in amazement, and in some disbelief, because I invented it.

No, not the technology, the word.

In October 1941, I wrote a robot story entitled “Runaround,” first published in the March 1942 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, in which I recited, for the first time, my Three Laws of Robotics. Here they are:

  1. A robot must not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders give it by human beings except where those orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence, except where such protection would conflict with the First or Second Laws.

Clearly, the order in which the Three Laws of Robotics matters. Shuffling the order leads to 3! = 6 possible permutations, and xkcd recently had some fun about what the consequences would be of those permutations.


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