Are You Smarter Than a Robot?

Well, you’d like to think so. Sure, you can’t calculate the cube of 17,302¹ as fast as Siri but you’ve got a brain that’s capable of solving the kind of problems which cause a robot – your computer, your smart phone, your human shaped domestic slave (if you’re reading this in 3000 A.D.) – to freeze.

Shall we put it to the test?

Image by Geralt via Pixabay [CC0].

The Three Laws of Robotics

Before we can, however, you need to get acquainted with the Three Laws of Robotics, written by Isaac Asimov almost a century ago:

Powell’s radio voice was tense in Donovan’s ear: “Now, look, let’s start with the three fundamental Rules of Robotics — the three rules that are built most deeply into a robot’s positronic brain.” In the darkness, his gloved fingers ticked off each point.

“We have: One, a robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.”


“Two,” continued Powell, “a robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.”


“And three, a robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.”

“Right! Now where are we?”

Isaac Asimov: Runaround

And indeed, where were they, Powell and Donovan, marooned on Mercury, with their life depending on an apparently drunken robot? I tell you where they were:  in a quandary.


The plot of Asimov’s short story, Runaround, turns on the fact that the robot Speedy finds itself in the position where two of the laws of robotics conflict each other. The result: he’s going around in circles, singing snatches of Gilbert & Sullivan, while his human masters are racking their brain how to bring him back to reason because they will die unless the robot actually starts doing what it’s meant to be doing.

Together with Asimov’s other short stories about robots and humans, Runaround has been published as part of a now famous novel, I, Robot. The novel explores what happens when the communication between humans and robots break down:  typically when the human in charge gives instructions which are sloppy, contradictory or figurative. At that point the robot tends to pack it in… and humans are left to sort out the mess they created.

So how would you resolve the following situations? Feel free to leave a comment with your solution.

Case 1: The Pool of Selenium

In Runaround, Speedy loses the plot because it’s told to collect selenium from a pool. Unfortunately, the pool poses a certain danger to Speedy. Speedy is unable to resolve the conflict between the 2nd and the 3d laws, and ends up going round and round the mulberry bush – I mean the selenium pool. While this is unfortunate in itself, what puts Donovan and Powell in a real fix is that they need the selenium to survive on Mercury: it’s needed to keep the photo-cells of the station working and the photo-cells are needed to save them from cooking alive.

So how do you get Speedy back if you can’t survive on the surface of Mercury long enough to actually reach him?

Case 2: The Lost Robot

The top secret Hyper Base has a problem: it has lost a robot, and all work at the station came to a halt as a consequence. Why? Because the missing robot is a modified model and does not have the first law imprinted in its positronic brain. Robotic experts Dr Susan Calvin and Peter Bogart are flown to Hyper Base to find the robot and as it turns out, Nestor 10 is right there among the rest of the robots – it’s just impossible to tell which robot it is. It’s been told by annoyed physicist: “Go lose yourself.” So it did. And where better to get lost than in a crowd of identical looking fellow robots?

The young man’s scarlet face turned to Bogert. He swallowed. “I said” His voice faded out. He tried again, “I said–”

And he drew a deep breath and spewed it out hastily in one long succession of syllables. Then, in the charged air that lingered, he concluded almost in tears, “… more or less. I don’t remember the exact order of what I called him, and maybe I left out something or put in something, but that was about it.”

Only the slightest flush betrayed any feeling on the part of the robopsychologist. She said, “I am aware of the meaning of most of the terms used. The others, I suppose, are equally derogatory.”

“I’m afraid so,” agreed the tormented Black.
“And in among it, you told him to lose himself.”
“I meant it only figuratively.”

But of course, robots don’t do figurative.

On to you – find the lost robot. 🙂

¹ It's 5,179,512,947,608 - see on the right. Siri took less time to answer than I did in getting my tongue around 17,302 in English. If you've got an iPhone/iPad, feel free to ask Siri yourself.
You might also like:I, Robot by Isaac Asimov - available online hereReturn from the StarsThe Future in the Past (2001: A Space Odyssey)

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