Isaac Asimov's Three Laws Of Robotics, from the story "Runaround" in 1942, are arguably the most famous example of fictional ethics becoming so fundamental they are adopted spontaneously by everyone in an industry that hadn't even been created yet.(1)

Now that robots are widely used in caring for older people, as well as in military and industrial applications, scholars want to give them a 21st century update.

This cover of I, Robot illustrates the story "Runaround" by Isaac Asimov, the first to list all Three Laws of Robotics. Credit: Wikipedia

The six values are designed address the circumstances of older people in need of support and are to be embodied in the programming and hardware of the care-robot “depending on whether the purpose of the robot is to prolong normal adult autonomy and independence as far as possible into old age, or whether the purpose is to take the load off the support network for an older person”.

The Six Values proposed are:

· Autonomy – being able to set goals in life and choose means;

· Independence – being able to implement one’s goals without the permission, assistance or material resources of others;

· Enablement – having, or having access to, the means of realizing goals and choices;

· Safety – being able readily to avoid pain or harm;

· Privacy – being able to pursue and realize one’s goals and implement one’s choices unobserved

· Social Connectedness – having regular contact with friends and loved ones and safe access to strangers one can choose to meet.

Discussing the values, which were developed by Professor Tom Sorell from the University of Warwick in collaboration with Professor Heather Draper of the University of Birmingham for a European Commission funded project called ACCOMPANY, he said there were “moral reasons why autonomy should be promoted before the alleviation of burdens on carers.

“Older people deserve to have the same choices as other adults, on pain otherwise of having an arbitrarily worse moral status. And where the six values conflict, there is reason for autonomy to be treated as overriding.”

On the question of whether the care-robot is answerable to the older person or carers who might worry about the older person and seek to restrict their activities, Professor Sorell says that the ability of the older person ”to lead their life in their own way should prevail” with this being reflected in how the six values are applied.

Sorell recognizes that there may be exceptions to the primacy of Autonomy:

“Exceptions might be where older people lack ‘capacity’ in the legal sense (in which case they would not be autonomous), where they are highly dependent, or where leading life in one’s own way is highly likely to lead to the need for rescue.”

Care-robots that are designed to promote the six values and assist older people to pursue their own interests are, Sorell argues, “better than robots designed merely to monitor the vital signs and warn of risks and dangers.

“Robots designed to let the user control information about their own routines and activities (including mishaps) are also to be preferred to those engaged in data-sharing with worried relations or health care workers.”

The researchers will continue to work on and refine the six values as engineers develop such devices and even Asimov himself continued to refine his own laws in later stories.


(1) They are:

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 the 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.

From Handbook of Robotics, 56th Edition, 2058 A.D.