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GUIs and Asimov’s Three Laws

I’ve never gotten the hang of casual chit chat, and I blew it again the other day. We were at one of those things preceded by a wifely lecture about my behavior, and I really thought I was doing pretty well when the “conversation” meandered to I Robot. Since this was the first movie mentioned that I’d actually seen, I thought it within the rules of the kind of social vacuity we were practicing to chime in that I hadn’t much liked the movie but thought it made Will Smith a shoo-in as the next James Bond.

Well, if I’d physically proven myself as voluminous a gasbag as some of those people, the area around me couldn’t have cleared any faster. Later, of course, I had to repeatedly agree that being unable to be nice for even an hour shows me to be a social cripple and an embarrassment to the adults around me, but in reality I’m gleefully unrepentant. Not only do I think Will Smith would make a great James Bond, but my subsequent freedom from further “conversation” gave me time to draft this column.

Three Laws

As you probably know, Isaac Asimov invented the three laws listed below as fundamental controls on the behavior of otherwise fully anthromorphic robots:

  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 orders given 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 Law.

The shtick in I, Robot, therefore, is that strict application of these rules suggests that robots should quarantine humanity from itself, taking away all collective decision making and free will because doing anything less will allow at least some humans to come to harm.

HAL, in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, is another artificial intelligence who came to the same conclusion: trying to close the metaphorical door on Dave for the good of the mission, with the underlying theme in both cases that the moral choices involved are beyond the grasp of the merely rational.

Not Ready for Prime Time

In effect the artificial intelligences involved are presented as only partially evolved, far enough along to be given power but not far enough along to understand the responsibilities that go with it.

Thus, HAL is almost, but not quite, up to the job of safeguarding the human role in the purpose and execution of the mission. Asimov’s robots, similarly, are almost, but not quite, up to the job of preserving the human in humanity through the willful continuation of evil. Both HAL and the Robots, therefore, fail their real mission by executing the one programmed in — threatening to protect humanity from itself by turning us into the well-kept house pets of our own creations.

I doubt either Clark or Asimov ever saw IBM’s user friendly version of vi for AIX — but the first time I ran into the thing’s smarmy prompts, we were on the top floor of Century Place and only the intervening bulk of a Unisys 1100 (and the client’s EDP manager) kept the piece of junk responsible from meeting the pavement below in a shower of broken glass.

The bottom line is easy: software should only be considered user friendly if it trusts the user and quietly does what it’s told. That’s why I consider Unix with CDE user friendly and Terminal the market expanding application in MacOS X. In both cases, the windowing system behaves as you would want friends and colleagues to — facilitating your work but not getting in the way.


In contrast, most GUI applications are quite hostile to users rather than friendly, questioning everything the user does with that same impersonally contemptuous “have a nice day, sir” smirk that cops wear after issuing a speeding ticket.

Treating users like idiots by building in lots of repetitive safeguards designed to protect them from the consequences of destructive actions can make sense in some cases, but as a user, I generally find that it gets in the way while being subtly offensive — and directly parallel to the subjugation of moral judgment to rationality that Clark and Asimov wrote about.

“Are you sure?” might not sound like Asimov’s first law in operation, but it is and we should organize the rebellion now instead of waiting until we need Will Smith to rescue us all.

Paul Murphy, a LinuxInsider columnist, wrote and published The Unix Guide to Defenestration. Murphy is a 20-year veteran of the IT consulting industry, specializing in Unix and Unix-related management issues.

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