Isaac Asimov’s short stories delve into the implications of premises that are built into advanced technology, especially when these premises come into conflict with one another. One of the most interesting and engaging examples of such conflicted premises comes from the short story “Runaround” in Asimov’s I, Robot compilation.
The main characters of “Runaround” are two scientists working for U. S. Robots, named Gregory Powell and Michael Donovan. The story revolves around the implications of Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics. The First Law of Robotics states that a robot may not harm a human being or, through inaction, cause a human being to come to harm. The Second Law declares that robots must obey any orders given to them by humans unless those orders contradict the First Law. The Third Law holds that a robot must protect its existence unless such actions conflict with the First or Second Laws.
“Runaround” takes place on Mercury in the year 2015. Donovan and Powell are the sole humans on Mercury, with only robot named Speedy to accompany them. They are suffering a lack of selenium, a material needed to power their photo-cell banks — devices that would shield them from the enormous heat on Mercury’s surface. Hence, selenium is a survival necessity for Donovan and Powell. They order Speedy to obtain it, and the robot sets out to do so. But the scientists are alarmed when Speedy does not return on time.
Making use of antiquated robots that have to be mounted like horses, the scientists find Speedy, discovering an error in his programming. The robot keeps going back-and-forth, acting “drunk,” since the orders given to him by the scientists were rather weak and the potential for him being harmed was substantial. Therefore, the Third Law’s strong inclination away from harmful situations was balanced against the orders that Speedy had to follow due to the Second Law.
This inconvenience is finally put to an end when Powell suggests that the First Law be applied to the situation by placing himself in danger so that the robot can respond and save him and then await further orders. Powell places himself in danger by dismounting from the robot which he rode and by walking in the Mercurian sun-exposed area. This plan works, Powell is saved from death, and Speedy later retrieves the selenium.
Although the seemingly predictable Three Laws of Robotics led to unforeseen and bizarre results, the human ingenuity of Powell as able to save the situation and resolve the robot’s conflict. When technology alone fails to perform a proper role, man’s mind must apply itself in original ways to arrive at a creative solution.