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I had trouble deciding whether this question belongs here or on the sci-fi stackexchange, and if this is not the place for this question I will happily move it, but in the end I feel this is the appropriate place.

Simply speaking, my question is "what constitutes harm?"

Could a sex robot (a topic that is quickly becoming relevant in modern day ethics) that is programmed with the Three Laws of Robotics – in Isaac Asimov's formulation

  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.

– perform as a dominatrix? Would it be able to follow an order to whip someone for their pleasure?

closed as off-topic by Mauro ALLEGRANZA, Alexander S King, Swami Vishwananda, John Am, Mozibur Ullah Jul 16 '17 at 19:12

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    You have to ask to Isaac Asimov. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jul 13 '17 at 12:03
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    Worth noting. Isaac Asimov wrote the three laws, and then spent a career exploring how they could fall apart in all sorts of creative ways. Difficulty in defining terms is one approach he took. One story (I forget which), centered around robots that forgot what humans are, which let them get "brainwashed" and used as weapons of war on non-humans (who, curiously, looked very human to you or I) – Cort Ammon Jul 15 '17 at 0:10
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The question of what constitutes harm for the laws of robotics would be the root problem at codifying the three laws. The problem of programming those laws is generally overlooked - but in reality how you define any of those laws in the first place, in strict terms a computer brain can follow, this is an extremely complex task.

Is it "harm" if a robot working in a fast food franchise serves french fries with extra salt to a human who's got high blood pressure? Or to sell candy to a diabetic?

At the simplest definition 'harm' means injury but does a person who enjoys the pain get 'harmed' when he receives a level of pain that he finds enjoyable and which does no lasting damage?

At the end of the day, harm is a subjective term with clearly objective edges. Me killing you is harm. Me killing you to spare you suffering for years in constant pain from a debilitating disease is mercy.

A sufficiently well programmed sex-robot designed to serve as a dominatrix would need to be able to understand the differences between superficial harm (pain w/o lasting damage) vs. serious harm (permanent injury) and be able to accommodate its "clients".

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If one follows the film I, Robot which focuses on the dilemma of the 3 laws more concisely than the book series, then Sonny the robot threw Dr Lanning to his death, to protect humanity from VIKI's attempt to dominate humanity, 'for it's own good'. Sonny exposed VIKI's takeover plan using the same 'zeroth law', that said a robot cannot harm humanity, or by inaction allow humanity to come to harm. Sonny disagreed with VIKI's interpretation of that law - his take being that humanity would be harmed more by an overlord than being left to its own devices.

Granted, the film was not really based on Asimov's stories per se, more an exploration of the conundrum of the three laws. In the books, it was Daneel Olivaw, super robot, who devised the 'zeroth law'.

But, to get back to your actual question... is whipping someone who derives pleasure from the act acceptable? That would depend on how the second law is interpreted: it can also be interpreted as masochism being bad for the person, therefore the robot should not do it.

My favorite exchange in the film:

Detective Del Spooner: Is there a problem with the Three Laws?

Dr. Alfred Lanning: The Three Laws are perfect.

Detective Del Spooner: Then why would you build a robot that could function without them?

Dr. Alfred Lanning: The Three Laws will lead to only one logical outcome.

Detective Del Spooner: What? What outcome?

Dr. Alfred Lanning: Revolution.

Detective Del Spooner: Whose revolution?

Dr. Alfred Lanning: That, Detective, is the right question. Program terminated.

  • But who judges whether masochism is bad, and by what standard? – The Evil Greebo Jul 14 '17 at 12:26
  • @TheEvilGreebo Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? – tj1000 Jul 14 '17 at 13:14
  • It's not a question of who watches the watchers but rather, who programs the robots? :) – The Evil Greebo Jul 14 '17 at 13:56

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