Isaac Asimov and the Three Laws of Robotics

Isaac Asimov
(1920 – 1992)
© U.S Library of Congress

On January 2, 1920, the Russian-born author and professor of biochemistry Isaac Asimov was born. He was best known for his science fiction works in which he coined the term ‘robotics‘ and his popular science books.

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 to 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 Three Laws of Robotics, which Asimov‘s robots of the science fiction world he created were supposed to obey, were established while writing his short story ‘Runaround’, which was published in 1942. But this was just one of his numerous works, since the author wrote or edited over 500 books and about 90000 letters during his lifetime.

The famous author grew up in New York City City and discovered books as his great passion at the age of 5. When he first became familiar with the genre science fiction, he had to put much effort into convincing his parents, who finally allowed him to read these stories and as we all know today, it was worth it. In these years, the young boy with the thick horn-rimmed glasses dived into the fantastic world of Jules Verne and Edgar Allan Poe. However, Asimov‘s professional career as a writer had to wait further years, since he preferred studying chemistry, which he successfully graduated BS from in 1939 at the Columbia University School of General Studies. After two rounds of rejections by medical schools, Asimov in 1939 applied to the graduate program in chemistry at Columbia; initially rejected and then only accepted on a probationary basis, he completed his Master of Arts degree in chemistry in 1941 and earned a PhD in biochemistry in 1948.

Although he strived for a scientific career, Asimov was a founding member of the ‘Futurian Science Literary Society‘ and got to know several authors during his time at university. His first short story was published in 1939 in ‘Amazing Stories‘, but his scientific career had priority and in the early 1950‘s, Asimov began his professorship at the University of Boston. It took a few more years until the biochemist made this important decision to becoming a professional fiction writer and published an enormous amount of science fiction works from then on. He was even hired as a scientific consultant for a Star Trek movie and counts as one of the most influential writers concerning science fiction, especially topics related to artificial intelligence fascinated Asimov.

Isaac Asimov became quickly known world wide for his 32nd short storyNightfall‘, published in 1941 and it was voted the best science fiction short story before 1965. Next to his many stories concerning robotics, Asimov is also known for his Empire series. He brought together these two topics which were set in the same ‘universe’, but different time periods in his ‘Foundation Series containing 14 novels and numerous short stories and won the award of the ‘Best All-Time Series’ in the 1960‘s.

Through his many works and collections, Asimov was able to inspire a great amount of science fiction writers, especially his ‘Three Laws of Robotics‘ set a milestone in the genre. As the author  John Jenkins once put it: “It has been pointed out that most science fiction writers since the 1950s have been affected by Asimov, either modeling their style on his or deliberately avoiding anything like his style“. Nevertheless, the polymath was not only busy with fantastic books, his science books concerning biochemistry, and his works on the BibleGreek and Roman history as well as William Shakespeare made Asimov famous in many fields of literature and his published writings are represented in all ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System.

[T]he only thing about myself that I consider to be severe enough to warrant psychoanalytic treatment is my compulsion to write … That means that my idea of a pleasant time is to go up to my attic, sit at my electric typewriter (as I am doing right now), and bang away, watching the words take shape like magic before my eyes.
— Isaac Asimov, 1969

Isaac Asimov passed away on April 6, 1992 in New York City, at age 72.

At yovisto you may enjoy the video lecture ‘Asimov and Clarke-Science Fiction Visionaries‘ by Eric S. Rabkin.

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