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J Endourol. 2008 Aug;22(8):1557-60. doi: 10.1089/end.2007.0106.

Three laws of robotics and surgery.

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Renaissance Urology, Stuart, Florida 34994, USA.



In 1939, Isaac Asimov solidified the modern science fiction genre of robotics in his short story "Strange Playfellow" but altered our thinking about robots in Runaround in 1942 by formulating the Three Laws. He took an engineer's perspective on advanced robotic technologies. Surgical robots by definition violate the first law, yet his discussions are poignant for our understanding of future potential of robotic urologic surgery.


We sought to better understand Asimov's visions by reading his fiction and autobiography. We then sought to place his perceptions of science fact next to the Three Laws (he later added a fourth law, the zeroth).


Asimov's Three Laws are often quoted in medical journals during discussions about robotic surgery. His First Law states: "A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. " This philosophy would directly conflict with the application in surgery. In fact, most of his robotic stories deal with robots that come into conflicts with the laws. Robots in his cleverly orchestrated works evolve unique solutions to complex hierarchical conflicts with these laws. Asimov anticipated the coming maelstrom of intelligent robotic technologies with prescient unease. Despite his scholarly intuitions, he was able to fathom medical/surgical applications in many of his works. These fictional robotic physicians were able to overcome the first law and aid in the care and management of the sick/injured.


Isaac Asimov published over 500 books on topics ranging from Shakespeare to science. Despite his widespread influence, he refused to visit the MIT robotics laboratory to see current, state-of-the-art systems. He managed to lay the foundation of modern robotic control systems with a human-oriented safety mechanism in his laws. "If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them " (I Asimov).

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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