The Risks Digest

The RISKS Digest

Forum on Risks to the Public in Computers and Related Systems

ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy, Peter G. Neumann, moderator

Volume 2 Issue 19

Sunday, 2 Mar 1986


o A word from Isaac Asimov about Robots
o AI risks
John Shore
o Replacing Humans with Computers
David desJardins
o On-line Slot Machines
Jeff Makey
o Info on RISKS (comp.risks)

A word from Isaac Asimov about Robots.

Sat, 1 Mar 86 13:45:11 PST
I went on vacation last week, irrelevant I know except for the following.

I flew on American Airlines, which had for the amusement of its passengers
an in flight magazine called "American Way"  issue dated February 18, 1986.
It contained an article written by Isaac Asimov which I have reproduced
here.  The clever pictures by Kent Robbins also in the article were omitted
for obvious technical reasons.

                                 Robots! Beware!
                                  Isaac Asimov

  reprinted from American Way, February 18, 1986.

   I invented the Three Laws of Robotics in 1942, and these laws, which are
built into the robots of my science-fiction stories, prevent them from harming
human beings, force them to follow orders,a nd make them protect themselves,
in that order of importance.

   Of course, the robots in which I imagined these laws to exist are complex
fictional robots, far more advanced than anything in real life (as yet).
In contrast, the robots in industrial assembly lines right now are just com-
puterized arms, capable of doing simple tasks over and over.

   But they are capable of doing harm, and, as the inventor of the laws, I
always feel guilty.

   Two workman in Japan were killed by robots, and in July, 1984, there was
the first fatality in the United States.  When the first American was killed
by robots, there were 13,000 robots in in industrial use in the United States.
One such accident with 13,000 robots in existence doesn't seem like a bad
ratio, but it is estimated that by 1990 the number of industrial robots will
reach 100,000.  Will the rate of robot-caused fatalities also increase eight-

   One may argue that accidents occur in connection with almost every
mechanical device, however simple and small.  Yet robots are different.
Because they seem more intelligent than other machines, a fatal accident seems
more likely to be the result of there malevolence.  There is the feeling that
intelligent machines should be more careful and avoid hurting a human being.
In short, even if I hadn't invented the Three Laws of Robotics, people would
take it for granted that they ought to exist.

   People therefore would resent robots more than they would resent other
devices that do harm; a robot should know better.

   If we're living in a society that is going to be more and more robotized,
then a public that resents and fears robots is likely to cripple what we think
of as progress.

   Yet the serious accidents that have taken place so far in connection with
robots have been the result. at least in part, of human carelessness.

   Perhaps in place of the first law we need a substitute that puts the onus
on human beings.  The first law --"A robot may not injure a human being, or
through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm"-- cannot be built into
the simple robots of today, so maybe it should be replaced with "A human being
must not approach a robot in operation or one that may suddenly become

   In other words, the human being must stay away.  In order to reinforce that,
the robot must be surrounded by a barrier, ideally one with a gate that when
opened to allow human beings access will cut off all power to the robot.

   Unfortunately, a barrier is sometimes insufficient.  If it can be climbed
or crawled under, there is nothing to prevent someone from doing that rather
than taking the trouble to open the gate. (Why? It's hard to explain, but we
see human beings risking their lives every day in order to save 15 seconds of

   As a result the barrier must not simply consist of railings or a low fence.
It should consist of an elaborate fence that only can be penetrated by way of
a gate.

   Furthermore, people who work with robots (of the kind we have now) must be
thoroughly indoctrinated with the understanding that a robot that is not in
operation may have inactivity as part of its cycle and that if the power is
not off, the robot may suddenly move into operation as another part of its
cycle begins.

   There might be emergencies when human beings must approach robots in oper-
ation.  If so, it is unsafe to suppose that they can count on a robot cont-
inuing a motion indefinitely no matter how often it repeats the motion.
It is possible that the robot's programming calls for repeated motions of a
particular sort, but eventually, a set of different motions will start as
another part of the cycle begins.

   To help understand this, there should be clear markings on the floor and
other work areas representing the extreme range of all robot movements in
all directions.

   Since no matter what one does, experienced workers begin to be over-
confident of their own abilities and contemptuous of the robot's ability
to do harm, indoctrination should be repeated periodically, and any viola-
tion of safety rules invariably should be followed with disciplinary action.

   Eventually, of course, when robots have grown sufficiently complex, the
three laws may be built into them, and then take over the responsibility for
human safety, and we can relax.


Isaac Asimov report's that the word "robot" is of Slavic origin and was
first used in a play, "R. U. R." written by a Czech playwright, Karl Capek,
in 1921.  The initials stand for Rossum's Universal Robots.  In Czech the
word refers to "involuntary servitude."

Re: AI risks

Sat, 1 Mar 86 07:32:52 EST
Expert systems are inherently untrustworthy.

If you claim or imply otherwise,
and if the system subsequently causes harm,
and if those harmed sue you,
you get what you deserve.

John Shore

Re: Replacing Humans with Computers

David desJardins <>
Fri, 28 Feb 86 20:47:58 pst
Nancy Leveson <nancy@ICSD.UCI.EDU> writes:
>I have recently seen several risks contributions which assumed that humans
>are the cause of most system accidents and that if the human was somehow
>replaced by a computer and not allowed to override the computer (i.e. to
>mess things up), everything would be fine.

   I really don't think anyone is proposing this.  What people are proposing
is the use of computers to monitor data and alert humans to potentially
dangerous situations.  My understanding is that even minor failures at
nuclear power plants activate hundreds of alarms and warning indicators.
Clearly what is needed is an expert system to analyze the mass of incoming
data and summarize the situation to the human staff.  It can also react,
more quickly than humans can, but presumably it would be designed to seek
human approval before taking any drastic action.

On-line Slot Machines

Jeff Makey <Makey@LOGICON.ARPA>
28 Feb 86 15:53 PST
The following article, reproduced here in its entirety, appeared in the
25 February 1986 edition of the San Diego Tribune.

               Can Nevada handle new slot gimmick?

        LAS VEGAS (AP) - A slot machine promotion promising
      payoffs of $10 million to $15 million has been given the
      green light by the Nevada Gaming Commission, but not
      without some misgivings.

        Commission Chairman Paul Bible said he had
      reservations about slot cheats who might rig the
      machines for phony payoffs.  The progressive slot
      machine network, known as Megabucks, would be available
      in numerous hotels throughout Nevada and would be linked
      by a computer system to build up the huge jackpots.

        Ray Pike, an attorney for Megabucks manufacturer
      International Gaming Technology, said the company has
      made every effort to make the machine cheat-proof.

It sounds like they are using some sort of computer network to link a
bunch of slot machines together.  Without knowing more than the above
about the system it's hard to tell if they have vulnerabilities that
other financial networks (like ATMs) don't have.  Cheating a slot
machine is not the same (in most people's minds, I suspect) as stealing
from a bank, so -- with $10+ million at stake -- I'll bet (pun intended)
that someone will try to break the system soon.

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