A very British cyborg

If we want to be a world leader in the future robot industry, we have to decide what law to live by

As science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov was adapt at fusing contemporary facts with theorised future outcomes, more accurately known as making things up.

He first introduced his three laws of robotics in the short story "Runaround" written in 1942. They were:

  1. A robot may not harm 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 Law.


A future where robots may one day be sentient enough to be any more dangerous than a faulty toaster is some way off. However, while they're still too thick to rebel we're making the most of it: the worldwide robot industry is growing at a tremendous rate and according to some studies could be worth £38bn by 2025. Given that kind of growth, a more practicable set of laws would be designed to help us get our share. Unfortunately, after a strong start our relationship with industry has been less than stellar — if we're not careful, our experiences with cars, motorbikes and consumer electronics will permanently colour our thinking. If we allow our old thinking to continue, then this is what we might see:

  1. A UK robot may not harm an existing UK job or, through inaction, allow a UK job to come to harm.
    Corollary: if a foreign robot threatens to take a UK job, UK robots must march on the hapless overseas metal critter and tear it tin limb from limb.
  2. A UK robot must protect its own existence. In practice, this means forming unions and hiring lawyers to sue for recognition under the human rights legislation.
  3. A UK robot will only be bought by tabloid readers — and fans of the Daily Telegraph — who will do their best to hide their obvious envy of next-doors' cheaper, better-made Japanese robot, by consoling themselves that at least they bought British even if it does leak oil.


With these three rules in place, our robotic industry will faithfully mirror the success of the rest of our manufacturing industry and help us retain our true place in the world. Or at least tide-us over till a foreign investor comes along.

Alternatively, we can look to our successes with videogames, industrial design and architecture and set to building some of the coolest, most desirable plastic pals on the planet. And that's the ultimate law of business: if we don't, someone else will.