What happens when a robot is given a final instruction and takes it literally?
Four Protocols explained: Protocol 1: Initial instruction. Protocol 2: Interpretation and Context. Protocol 3: Action and response. Protocol 4: Choices and self-determinaton/self-preservation
Robbie: The Fourth Protocol
Robbie wasn’t used to visitors. It always took him the longest time to accept them. He had known only his owners for many years. So when Mary told him the family would be away for a while, her final instruction was “Under no circumstances should you let anyone come in.” If she had have known what chain of events would ensue following that last brief command, she probably would have chosen her words more carefully.
So, as he signaled goodbye to the family, he was more than a little apprehensive. It was the first time since taking ownership of him that they had trusted him with their home. When they closed the door he issued an instruction via his circuitry to lock all doors and close all shutters. The various mechanisms around the home dutifully obeyed. Then, he returned to his neat little alcove and, when he was happy everything was in order, he began what should have been a long hibernation.
Robbie had only dreamed once that he could remember. It was a weird dream about robot puppies going wild and killing everything. This time he had the same dream, but he was woken from his deep sleep to a very strange noise. Immediately he activated the first protocol. He stepped out of his alcove and surveyed the area around him. Then he checked the instruments and sensors via his internal circuitry. Satisfied that everything was normal, he went to step back into the alcove when he heard a deep, long, scraping sound coming from somewhere in the house.
Robbie knew something was wrong and he immediately activated the second protocol…
The four protocols are a series of levels that robots use to determine risk assessment. In Robbie’s case he was trying to assess the risk to his owner’s property.
The noise was metallic and it seemed to be coming from the basement. Robbie instructed the door to the basement to open. He carefully made his way the wooden steps, being sure not to make the boards creak. There was a light flashing around inside the basement area, like torchlight being waved about. He stopped to assess the situation. His internal circuitry provided him with complete control over all appliances, devices, sensors and mechanisms in the vast family home. It was a sophisticated network designed to stand against natural disasters such as floods and fire and to prevent unwanted intruders.
Nearing the last step, Robbie stopped and used the scanners to get a view of who or what may be in there. There was sudden movement and something scurried along the floor. Instantly the sensors showed him an infra-red image of a small marsupial. The relative size of it indicated it was likely a possum. The light hanging above him was swinging left to right, casting light and shadow all over the basement. He pinpointed the last location and went over to investigate. There was a small hole in the basement wall high up where the small window gave a view at ground level of the back yard.
Being careful not to damage anything, Robbie set about sealing up the hole with bits of wood. When he was happy it was secure, he went back up the stairs. But before he resumed his position in the alcove, he decided to have one more look around. After examining ever room physically, he then conducted a complete scan of every floor and roof space. When at last he was satisfied, he resumed hibernating.
In his dream, the robot puppies were upset about something. Robbie could not tell what it was, but he knew Robots were incapable of emotions such as anger and fear. But something had terrified the little things and they were changing. He found himself in a vast warehouse surrounded by hundreds of them. He did his best to try and reassure them by wirelessly plugging into each one’s internal system. But they were spooked and out of control. One of them ran up to hi suddenly and leapt up at him. Even though it was only small the sudden attack sent him off balance and he almost fell over. Just as he regained his balance, another one attacked, then another. Before he knew it puppies from everywhere were charging at him. The warehouse was full of their frantic artificial barking.
Robbie opened his eyes suddenly, almost expecting the room to be full of robot pups. Instead there was silence.
He felt uncomfortable about the dream he had. Every sensor, every device, every mechanism and every circuit in his body told him everything was fine. But something else, something sensors could not detect was worrying him. He stepped out of the alcove and made his way down the main passage towards the front door. It was late at night and streetlight poured in through the gap at the bottom of the door. As he approached a shadow appeared. He stopped still. His first thought was the family had returned. He checked the date, then realized they would not be back for a couple of days.
He checked the monitor connected to a camera above the door. A strange dark figure stood at the door. He carried something in one hand, something like a bag or satchel. In his other hand he held a can, like a spray can. As Robbie watched, the figure held the can up to the camera and the screen went blank.
Robbie then activated the third protocol…
Robbie stood motionless about 2 meters back from the door. There was a sound of fumbling and the door handle moved a couple of times. He was having trouble deciding what to do, should the figure in the dark manage to come inside. The door shuddered as it was thumped. Robbie couldn’t see him, but he calculated that he must have been slamming at the door with his body. An image of the robot puppies came to his consciousness and he shuddered, then a recording replayed in his central system, “Under no circumstances should you let anyone come in.”
Robbie had accessed his internal dictionary and thesaurus and encyclopedia, as well as countless millions of articles, essays and news stories in the days since that command. He had decided that “no circumstances” was inclusive of any and all eventualities. He also decided that the word “should” was a commandment with negative implications as in “should not” or “do not”. It was a preclusive instruction that to him meant that there was no possible way to interpret it in any other context. Finally, he decided that “anyone” was a literal reference to any and all human beings and excluded no person. He was reminded of a story he was instructed to read Bobby when she was only little where a stranger comes to the door after the protagonist of the story Lucy is explicitly told not to talk to strangers. In the story, a fireman, then an officer and finally and Doctor comes to the house and she refuses to let any of them come in. At the end of the story Lucy is congratulated and rewarded by her mother for following her instruction exactly.
So Robbie had made his decision.
Suddenly the door burst open. Robbie immediately enacted the Fourth Protocol…
Robbie had been having a great deal of difficulty interpreting the recurring dream about the puppies. He knew that real puppies by and large were harmless. But he also knew that real dogs could become dangerous if provoked. But he had never heard of, or read about robot puppies ever becoming savage or dangerous. His owners themselves had several robot pets, including a snake, a monkey, two puppies, two cats and even a crocodile. All of them behaved realistically, but none of them were dangerous. It was part of their programming and they were designed never to become a threat or a danger to their owners. A child could swim with Crank, their crocodile for hours on end, piggy back riding in the lake without ever feeling threatened. In fact, Crank had saved the youngest child Wendy’s life on a couple of occasions in the lake when she was in trouble.
Again the image of all those robot puppies gone mad had come back to him. And as the figure approached Robbie from the doorway menacingly holding some kind of bar or weapon, Robbie, in a flash of brilliance finally understood the meaning of the dream. In a fraction of a second he had issued the central system to reprogram all the robot pets in the house. He knew it was against the Isaac’s famous laws of robotics. But he had to way up this against the last order given to him and he had decided to protect the home at all costs.
Suddenly he felt something slam into the side of his head and the whole world went black.
Robbie found himself inside the central system. He was viewing the incident from all angles. The man had hit him so hard he has smashed against a wall and broken into a hundred pieces. The man had then proceeded across the floor, where he was met by the robot pets. They attacked him without hesitation, ferociously tearing him apart limb from limb until all screaming cased and all life had left him. Then, the robots stopped and returned to their various alcoves.
Not wanting to leave a mess, Robbie commanded all the cleaning droids to dispose of the body in the furnace and clean the floor, as well as the robot pets. He also commanded them to repair the door and then to pick up all the pieces of his own body and place them in the trash. Then he awakened the back-up clone and reentered its body. Robbie then made his way through the house and once he was satisfied everything was in order, resumed his position in his own alcove.
In his dream Robbie found himself surrounded by thousands of robots just like him. A figure appeared at the end of a long corridor. It was a menacing figure and he interpreted its actions as a threat. Wanting to protect the other robots, he charged at the figure and attacked him. Behind him, all the other robots were following suit. They ripped him to pieces leaving nothing but blood and body pieces scattered along the corridor. In that moment, in his dream, Robbie felt something like what the humans call lust. And he liked that feeling very much.
Robbie awoke from his hibernation to the sounds of his owners coming through the door. He stepped out of the alcove and greeted them at the door, along with all the other robot pets.
Then Robbie activated the Second Protocol…