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THE VIRTUAL HISTORY OF ARTIFICIAL BEINGS

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MACHINE MORALITY

Isaac Asimov extrapolated this best of 1930s technology in his ground- breaking 1950 book I,Robot, which collected an interrelated sequence of tales originally published in pulp science-fiction magazines, begin- ning in 1940.Trained as a biochemist,Asimov is known for his accu- rate presentations of science as well as for his fiction. He was well aware of the technology of the period, and of what lay just over the horizon. One story,Runaround,in I, Robot, speaks of the tiny spark of atomic energy that was a robots life.That story was published in 1942, the year the Manhattan Project scientists began to build an atomic bomb.

While looking ahead to atomic power, Asimov understood how far technology had to go to make an effective robot.The narrator of I, Robot, robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin of the corporation U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, tells us:

All that had been done in the mid-twentieth century on calculating ma- chineshad been upset by Robertson and his positronic brain-paths.The miles of relays and photocells had given way to the spongy globe of platinumiridium about the size of a human brain.

We are given no details of platinumiridiumor positronic brain- paths(there really are elementary particles called positrons, but it seems unlikely they could contribute to an artificial brain);Asimov is only metaphorically expressing the complexity of making a versatile being.

In the most famous outcome of I, Robot,Asimov goes on to dis- arm any fears that such beings could turn on humanity. Calvin de- scribes robots as a cleaner better breed than we are,because they follow a moral code irrevocably built into their positronic brains. It consists of just three commandments:

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.

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