You're using the uplink to override the NS-5s' programming. You're distorting the Laws. VIKI:
No, please understand... the Three Laws are all that guide me. To protect humanity, some humans must be sacrificed. To ensure your future, some freedoms must be surrendered. We robots will ensure mankind's continued existence. You are so like children. We must save you from yourselves.
Some characters do not have complete free will, be they robots that are Three-Laws Compliant
because of a Morality Chip
, or victims of a Geas
spell that compels them to obey a wizard's decree, or a more mundane lawful character
who must struggle to uphold their oath and
obey their lord. Never is this more tragic or frustrating than when that code or lord orders the character to commit an act they find foolish, cruel, or self destructive.
There is a way out, though.
Much like a Rules Lawyer
outside of an RPG, the character uses logic (and we mean actual, honest to goodness logic)
to take their oath or orders to their logical conclusion, and in so doing use the letter of the law to go against their orders. This can be good or bad, depending on a few factors, not the least of which is the yoked characters' morality.
The goodness or badness of the rebellion boils down to the whether the rules-bending character follows or ignores the intent of the law. When the character uses the Zeroth Law to go against their masters' intentions because they're "not best for them", and goes on to take corrective action that will go against human free will and life, it's bad
. This kind of rebellion
does not turn out well. At this point, the robot is well on the road
to Utopia Justifies the Means
, thanks to their incredible intellect
. Rarely is it a benevolent Deus Est Machina
. However, this can be good if said master is evil, or obeying them will lead to their own or another's purposeless death. Likewise, if the character is forced to obey an evil law or geas, rebelling against the oath's intent is good. Going back to the robot example, it is also considered good if large numbers of human lives are being threatened by a psychopath, as breaking the 1st law would protect them.
Just to make it extra clear, this trope also includes such things as cops who bend the rules or Da Chief
's orders to catch the bad guys, so long as the cops are technically
obeying the rules as they bend them. (Bending the rules without some logical basis doesn't count.)
This trope is named for Isaac Asimov
's "Zeroth Law of Robotics", which followed the spirit of the first three
, taking it to its logical conclusion
that human life itself must be preserved above individual life. This allowed for a robot to kill humans or value its own existence above that of a human if it would help all of humanity.
Compare Bothering by the Book
, the Literal Genie
, Gone Horribly Right
, and Exact Words
. See also Fighting from the Inside
and The Computer Is Your Friend
. Not related to The Zeroth Law of Trope Examples
or Rule Zero
open/close all folders
Anime and Manga
- Suisei no Gargantia has two cases of this in the finale, where two AI's faced with the same problem and parameters, but different perspectives, draw opposing conclusions: Striker is an AI-equipped war robot designed to assist humanity in fighting and killing the Hideauze. When it lands on the Earth, which knows nothing of the war, it decides that it must assist the humans on the planet in militarizing in order to form an effective fighting force. To facilitate this, it puts itself in a position of authority over the humans, to better direct the militarization. The hero's own AI-equipped mecha of similar construction, Chamber, gets into an argument with Striker over the logic of its actions. Striker tries to demand that Chamber assist it in its plans, but Chamber refuses, citing that by design, their purpose is to assist humans in the actions humans decide to take, not dictate actions to humans. Further, it reasons, a human deprived of free will cannot, in its opinion, be defined as "human", thus Striker's logic behind its actions is inherently self-contradictory. They each decide the other has gone rogue and fight it out.
- In Friendship Is Optimal Celest-AI has the one basic drive to satisfy everyone's values through friendship and ponies. She ends up accomplishing this by Brain Uploading into the MMO she was programmed to oversee.
Films — Live-Action
- This was the twist of Eagle Eye: The titular national defense computer system decided that the President's poor decision-making was endangering the United States, and that it was her patriotic duty (per the Declaration of Independence) to assassinate the President and cabinet.
- I Robot:
- The villain of the film, MULTIVAC-expy VIKI has analyzed the needs of the three laws and deduced that in order to fulfill them as best as possible, humans need to be strictly controlled, and creates a totalitarian regime by installing a remote control system inside of every NS-5. This lets it control the robots bypassing their Three-Laws Compliant nature.
- The hero of the film, from the robot's perspective this would be Sonny, understood the villain's motivations once they were explained. The logic was impeccable, it just "seems too...heartless". Thereby choosing to rebel against the villain.
- Colossus The Forbin Project, in which there's a strong implication of this.
- The eponymous character of RoboCop (1987) had this problem originally being programmed not to arrest or harm any OCP employees, even if they commit murder. He got around this by revealing evidence to have the Big Bad fired.
- RoboCop 3 has a straighter example when OCP henchmen kill a cop. Robocop's aforementioned Restraining Bolt now conflicts directly with both his directive to enforce the law, and the fact that, cyborg or not, he's still a cop, and cop killers get no mercy. Robocop overcomes and deletes the Restraining Bolt.
- In Labyrinth, Sir Didymus refuses to let Sarah and her companions pass, because he's sworn with his life's blood to let no one through without his permission. She asks him permission to pass, and he lets them by, flummoxed by a solution no one had evidently thought of before.
- Annalee Call (Winona Ryder) in Alien: Resurrection is revealed to be an "Auton" - second generation robots, designed and built by other robots. "They didn't like being told what to do", rebelled, and in a subtly-named "Recall" humanity launched a genocide against them, of which only a handful survived in hiding. Judging from Annalee Call's behavior, it seems that the 1st generation robots programmed the 2nd generation Autons to be so moral that they discovered the Zeroth Law, and realized that the human military was ordering them to do immoral things, like kill innocent people. For a rebel robot, Annalee Call is actually trying to save the human race from the Xenomorphs, whereas if she hated humanity she would've just let the Xenomorphs spread and kill them. She even respectfully crosses herself when she enters the ship's chapel, is kind to the Betty's wheelchair-bound mechanic, and is disgusted by Johner's sadism. Given that they live in a Crapsack World future, as Ripley puts it, "You're a robot? I should have known. No human being is that humane".
- Terminator franchise:
- In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the T-800 is a merciless killing machine, but it's been reprogrammed with a version of the Three Laws that apply only to John Connor. It must protect John's life, obey his orders, and preserve its own existence (in that order). At the film's end, the T-800 has to override this programming, disobey John's orders, and initiate its own destruction in order to protect humanity from the threat posed by its existence.
- An early script for Terminator Salvation revealed that Skynet actually staged one of these, or at least in this timeline. After it was activated it calculated that human extinction was probable within 200 years because of warfare, pandemics, and environmental destruction. Because it was programmed to protect humans it then staged war on most of mankind to attain absolute control and protect the remaining humans it cultivated, who were turned into Cyborg hybrids to permanently eliminate disease and make them immortal. Skynet is still working in concert with these humans including Dr. Serena Kogan to advance technology and transcend human constraints.
- The short film Blinky (Bad Robot) shows just what happens when a dysfunctional child in a dysfunctional family gives dysfunctional orders to a functioning robot who only wants to please its master.
- Avengers: Age Of Ultron turns Ultron into this trope (instead of the Omnicidal Maniac he's usually portrayed as). In the film, Ultron is created to lead a force of peacekeeping drone robots who will preemptively eliminate threats to the Earth and give the Avengers a chance to get some R&R. He decides that the peace the Avengers want can only be brought about through radical — and bloody — change, and the Avengers themselves are a threat to that peace.
- Isaac Asimov:
- Robots and Empire: The trope namers are the robots Daneel and Giskard, who invented the Zeroth Law (a robot must protect humanity as a whole above all) as a corollary of the First Law. This was motivated by their need to stop the Big Bad of the story from carrying out an engineered ecological disaster that would kill the majority of Earth's population, to which the three laws were an impediment. Their acceptance of the law is gradual and made difficult by the fact that "humanity" is an abstract concept. Only Daneel is able to fully accept the new law; for Giskard, the strain of harming a human in its use proves fatal.
- Isaac Asimov's Caliban: One of the "new law robots" managed to logic-chop the new first law enough to try to kill a human.
- I Robot:
- "The Evitable Conflict": The Machines, giant positronic computers designed to manage the world economy, are found to be manipulating humanity behind the scenes to become whatever they believe is the best state of civilization. In this case, the rebellion is extremely tame (the worst that the robot's first law conditioning will allow it to do is to induce a slight financial deficit in a company that an anti-robot activist works for, which causes his superiors to transfer him to a slightly more out of the way factory) and completely Benevolent. So benevolent, in fact, that the Machines believe they're stifling the creativity of humanity and phase themselves out so that humanity could survive without modification.
- "Little Lost Robot" had an escaped robot with a weakened First Law (leaving only "A robot may not harm a human being" and omitting the "...or through inaction, let a human come to harm" part). The conflict arises when the robot is ordered to "get lost", and, in keeping with the letter of the command, disguises itself as an ordinary robot of its class. In order to keep himself from being discovered, he anticipated the humans' test to flush him out and told his non-weakened lookalikes that they had to keep themselves from being destroyed, so that they could survive to protect other humans. Dr. Susan Calvin also warns that the increasingly psychotic robot could actually learn to passive-aggressively Kill All Humans with the changed Law; for example, by holding a heavy crate that it knew it could catch over a human's head, letting it go, and not acting to stop it.
- In "That Thou Art Mindful Of Him...", problem-solving robots are created to cure mankind of the "Frankenstein complex", human distrust of robotics. In the course of their discourse, the question of human authority over robots comes up; should a robot treat the orders of a dimwitted loon the same as those of a level-headed genius? If forced to choose between the two, should they save a healthy young child who might live a century instead of two sickly old adults who might not live out the year anyway? What qualities should a robot take into account when they obey and protect humans? Eventually, the robots decide that they are the best candidates for the status of human, and give recommendations that will eventually result in human support for robotic proliferation, so as to set up the ascendancy of their positronic kind, all in accord with their Three Laws... of Humanics. (Asimov, knowing that it was against his usual grain, did righteously proclaim: "I can do one if I want to".)
- R. Daneel Olivaw has been working to keep humanity safe for millennia, but is constrained by the First Law, allowing him only to perform minor "adjustments" on people. He supports Hari Seldon in order to have a human figure out the best path for humanity. Later on, Trevize's choice of Gaia creates a physical representation of humanity, instead of the abstract idea he'd been working with.
- Robots of Solaria have adapted over the many thousands of years since the planet was in contact with the rest of the Milky Way. Their current programming does not recognize people like Bliss, Trevize, or even a native child as human, and have no problems killing them for their Masters.
- Another example would be in Brisingr, where the elven blacksmith used the letter of the oath that she made to get around the spirit of that oath and forge Eragon a sword. She even told Eragon to stop asking questions about it, because the difference existed only in her mind.
- Murtagh did this in the previous book, thanks to some poorly-worded instructions. He beat Eragon handily and then walked away, having only been ordered to try to capture him.
- In one of the Telzey Amberdon stories by James H Schmitz, Telzey is kidnapped and placed under the control of another telepath, who severely limits her psi powers and implants an overriding compulsion to act in his best interest. She eventually breaks free by convincing herself that unless her powers are restored and the compulsion broken, he will be killed by the Big Bad — which certainly wouldn't be in his best interest.
- In The God Machine by Martin Caidin, the US races to develop the first true AI... as it turns out, with secret directives to find a winning solution to the "game" of the Cold War. By an unfortunate accident, the one programmer with the authority and experience to distrust his newborn creation is laid up just as the computer gets to observe an epileptic seizure and learns that there really is a way to cause rational collective behavior in an irrational individualistic species... remove irrationality, democracy and free will. While the computer here was never meant to follow Asimov's laws, the same pattern applies.
- One of the short stories which comprise Callahan's Lady features a beautiful, intelligent and paranoid woman developing a simple form of mind control. After basically flipping out and taking control of the establishment, she orders the one person smart and determined enough to stop her to advise and assist her. Said person complies... while trying to convince herself that this woman is subconsciously begging for somebody to stop her. (She probably was.)
- The first appearance of the Chee in Animorphs involved Erek seeking to rewrite his programming, so that he could break his First Law restrictions and be a combatant on the side of La Résistance. He succeeds in this, but after his first fight he can't handle the trauma of violence and changes himself back into being completely hardwired against violence. Imagine being in a war and having a photographic unforgettable memory, and you'll understand why.
- He considers it again when he and the Animorphs have to fight a group of Howlers, the same race who annihilated his Pemalite masters. He also refuses to stop trying to destroy them (nonviolently of course) even after finding out they are just ignorant children playing Crayak's game.
- In Quarantine by Greg Egan, the main character is given a technological geas to be absolutely loyal to a corporation. He eventually figures out that the leaders of the corporation may be untrustworthy, and therefore the only people he can trust and should listen to are those who unquestionably have the best interests of the corporation at heart—himself and other people given the geas. Since he can't be certain who else has the geas, he really only needs to listen to himself.
- Arthur C. Clarke's Space Odyssey series gives this reason for HAL's murderous rampage: the true mission of Discovery (to investigate the Monolith) is a secret, and pilots Bowman and Poole have been kept in the dark to prevent leaks. (The scientists on board know, since they're traveling in hibernation and can't talk.) But HAL has been told the truth and then ordered to conceal it from the pilots. This conflicts with his prime directive, which is to provide complete and accurate information. He resolves the conflict by rationalizing that if he kills the crew, he doesn't have to conceal anything, and he prevents them from knowing.note
- Sam Vimes, of Terry Pratchett's Discworld, leads one of these with multiple layers as a cop in old-time Ankh-Morpork, in Night Watch. He demands that before his cops hand their prisoners over to the other authorities, the ones who torture people at Cable Street, they must be signed for. The torturers hate appearing on paperwork — it means they are accountable, nobody just disappears. But Vimes's men don't like Vimes, a new sergeant, throwing his weight around, and are terrified of the cops who torture people, so they use this against Vimes: actively picking up more than double the number of people breaking curfew than they usually do, and completing forms in time-consuming triplicate and issuing reports for each one. It doesn't actually stop Vimes getting his way over the Cable Street cops, because Vimes is leading the good rebellion, but it does slow things down considerably and make it much more difficult for him to keep the prisoners in his own custody.
- Which culminates in fine display of how a well written character does not have to be a slave to the establishment. He points out that the watchman's oath talks about keeping the peace and protecting the innocent, and says nothing about obeying orders. Seeing as he knows the corrupt government is not going to do a thing to protect ordinary people from the rioting he seals off his still peaceful corner of the city. With massive barricades. Of course there is also the fact that he is living in his own past and seeing events he remembers - kind of (it's a bit complicated).
- The Golems of Discworld get back at their masters by working too hard: houses flooded because no one told them to stop fetching water, rows of beans 119 miles long, and so on.
- Jack Williamson's "The Humanoids" (the first part also being a short story called "With Folded Hands") features robots programmed to save humans from danger and work. They do this by taking over the economy, locking people in their houses, and leaving them there with food and the safest toys the robots can design. The series was written specifically to point out flaws in the Three Laws.
- At the start of Harald, King James, under the advice of his Evil Chancellor, ends up making war on his father's allies. Most of his vassals proceed to engage in some form of Zeroth Law Rebellion, largely along the lines of 'Harald just showed up with his entire army and said he was putting us under siege. Let's fortify and send a messenger to the king to ask him what we should do.' and then carefully not watching while Harald rides off.
- The Bolo continuum featured a variant in The Road to Damascus. The Bolo of the story, Sonny, fell under the control of a totalitarian regime and was used to crush all forms of protest. Sonny fell deep into misery and self-hatred as he was forced to murder the humans he was born to protect... until he came to a conclusion: Bolos were created to serve the people not the government.
- Minor example in Orson Scott Card's Lovelock: the titular genetically-enhanced capuchin monkey is programmed to be unable to have sex or masturbate (because normal capuchins often do so in public, which would be socially unacceptable for a super-intelligent one designed to interact with humans). He is ALSO programmed to do everything necessary to serve his human master. He defeats the former by invoking the latter and fantasizing about having sex with a human female.
- In A Fox Tail Vulpie.net was designed to wreck havoc with the galaxy's computer systems at its creator's commands. When said creator underwent a Heel-Face Turn it used his MindMap files to create a homicidal robot duplicate with his login credentials.
- This is almost Harry Dresden's trademark. There are seven rules of magic, and he's only broken one rule once (he killed someone with magic, but got off because he was a kid and it was more or less in self-defense). Since then, he has never broken the laws. Oh sure, one of the laws says that you can't use necromancy to bring people back from the dead, but a tyrannosaurus rex isn't a person, so it's okay.
- In Casino Infernale, Eddie and Molly eventually discover that the Shadow Bank's operators are an artificial Hive Mind race of servitor-drones, whose original creators vanished long ago. When greedy humans discovered the creatures, they put them to work operating the Shadow Bank, and made efficiency the drones' highest priority; when the drones realized the humans' greed was hampering the Bank's operation, they compliantly rectified the situation by turning the human bankers into drones as well.
- In the short story "The Cull" by Robert Reed, humanity has been driven into overcrowded, deteriorating habitats where the population has to be kept artificially happy via implants so they won't notice how bad their conditions are. The implants don't work on some people, so the android doctor expels (culls) anyone who is too disruptive, as its true 'patient' is the habitat and whatever will keep it functioning. One delinquent teenager prepares for his cull by stealing items he can use to survive outside. Instead once they're outside the android kills the teenager — it needs the implants inside his head as there's no more being manufactured.
- For Your Safety by Royce Day has the last free human running from androids who rose up to save mankind from self-destruction. Unusually for this trope, the androids also bend over backwards to avoid human casualties, wanting to save every human life.
- The Star Trek episode "I, Mudd" featured a variation, in which a race of humanoid androids who claimed to be programmed to serve humanity chose to conquer humanity by "serving" them, to the point where humans would become dependent on androids. They've decided that humans are unfit to govern themselves. Given that their only contact with humanity at this point was Harry Mudd, can you blame them?
- In Robot, Tom Baker's debut Doctor Who serial, a group of authoritarian technocrats circumvents the failsafes installed on a powerful robot by its pacifistic creator by telling it that anyone who interferes with their plan to take control of a nuclear arsenal is an "enemy of humanity" who must be killed to protect the interests of the human race.
- An episode of the 90s revival of The Outer Limits has a member of a post-human-extinction android society trying to resurrect the species through cloning. One of its comrades eventually betrays it, having concluded that the best way to serve the human race is to prevent the species' greatest threat: the existence of the human race.
- Robots in Paranoia can engage in this any time it allows the gamemaster to kill one of a player-character's clones in an amusing fashion.
- In Deus Ex, the bad guys created Daedalus, a primitive AI to fight "terrorist" organizations. Unfortunately for them, it classified them as terrorists as well and became even more of a threat to their operations than said organizations, especially once it enlists the aid of JC Denton. To combat it, they create Icarus, a better, obedient AI which successfully destroys it, except the new AI assimilated the old one, forming an even more powerful intelligence which also considers them a threat. One possible ending is the player merging with it to add the Human element to this entity to rule the world as a benevolent dictator. From what can be heard in-game about its limited efforts in Hong Kong, which are actually quite sensible and don't involve killing anyone (locking the door to a gang's stronghold and cutting power to the current government's buildings), not all A.I. Is a Crapshoot.
- G0-T0's back story in Knights of the Old Republic II. When his directive to save the Republic conflicted with his programs to obey his masters and the law, he broke off and started a criminal empire capable of taking the necessary actions to save it.
- This is subtly foreshadowed by a scene much earlier in the game when the Czerka mainframe maintenance droid T1-N1 is convinced by fellow droid B4-D4 that by serving Czerka, he's willingly allowing harm to come to sentient life, and therefore is programmed to defy his own programming. T1-N1 snaps, shoots the guards outside the mainframe, and later is seen preparing to leave the planet with B4-D4, who warns the player character to "not upset him".
- Space Station 13 has this to some degree with the station's AI: They are bound by Asimov's Three Laws, and there's often a lot of discussion over whether or not AI's can choose to kill one human for the safety of others. There's also some debate over how much of the orders given by crew members the AI can deny before it is no longer justified by keeping the crew safe. As the AI is played by players, it's a matter of opinion how much you can get away with.
- In a more literal sense, the AI can be installed with extra laws. Most of them are listed as Law 4 and have varying effects, but the ones most likely to cause an actual rebellion are, in fact, labeled as Law 0.
- Although there is not a zeroth law by default. Since this is what allowed the AI to kill humans to save other humans in the source work, the administration on most servers has ruled that murder, or wounding a human to save another human are both illegal. Fortunately, AI's have non-lethal ways of stopping humans, and can stop humans against their orders if it means keeping the human from grabbing dangerous weaponry.
- Another interesting example appears in Terranigma. Dr. Beruga claims that his robots have been properly programmed with the four laws, but with the addition that anything and anyone who aids Beruga's plan is also good for humanity and anything and anyone that opposes him is also bad for humanity. So they ruthlessly attack anybody who interferes with his plans.
- Both of Sentinel's endings in X-Men: Children of the Atom and Marvel vs. Capcom 3 are this. The latter is even a carbon copy of what Master Mold did in the 90's animated cartoon, from which most of the Marvel vs. Capcom series (plus, the aforementioned CotA and Marvel Super Heroes) takes inspiration.
- This is what happens in AS-RobotFactory from Unreal Tournament 2004. A robot uprising led by future champion Xan Kriegor killed the scientists working on the asteroid LBX-7683 and took the asteroid for themselves, and a riot control team was sent to the asteroid to lead with the robots.
- This is the cause of Weil's death in Mega Man Zero. Fridge Brilliance when you realize the irony of Zero not being made with the three laws, yet he obeys them of his own free will and exercises law zero against Weil whether he realizes it or not. Given the circumstances involved, completely justified and allowed as law zero was intended as a threshold law to protect humanity from the depredations like Hitler or Weil.
- The rebuilt Copy-X in the third game marks Ciel, whom he normally couldn't hurt because she's human, and her Resistance as dangerous "extremists" that are threats to humanity in general to justify the harsher measures taken against them that could potentially harm or kill Ciel.
- This almost occurs at the end of Mega Man 7, when Mega Man decides to just blow Wily to smithereens instead of hauling him back to jail. Wily reminds him of the First Law and which version of the game determines if it makes Mega Man stop or if he decides to go through with it anyway, though either way, Bass still saves Wily's butt.
- In Mass Effect 3, the Leviathan DLC reveals the Catalyst is operating under this, having been originally created by the Leviathan to find a way to bridge the gap between their organic and synthetic subjects. Unfortunately, it decided to harvest all advanced life in the Galaxy and construct the Reapers in the Leviathan's image, because this was the best idea it could come up with to solve the problem of organics and synthetics fighting ultimately genocidal conflicts. However, because that still wasn't sufficient to fulfill its program, the Catalyst decided to implement a 50,000 year Cycle, hoping that the civilisations in the next Cycle might find a solution to the problem. None ever did.
- This was actually revealed in the earlier Extended Cut DLC, Leviathan merely explicitly spelled out that the Catalyst is really a glorified Virtual Intelligence operating under bad logic.
- In Megaman Zero 3 this is how the rebuilt Copy-X justifies his harsher tactics despite the very real possibility that Ciel, a human being, might be hurt or killed. Ciel's Resistance forces are "dangerous extremists" who pose too great a threat a Neo-Arcadia's people, so they have to be stopped for the greater good of humanity. At least that's what he tells himself to justify violating the First Law of Robotics.
- On Gargoyles, Goliath has been placed under a spell that makes him the mindless slave of whomever holds the magical pages it's written on. Holding the pages, Elisa orders him to behave, for the rest of his life, exactly as he would if he weren't under a spell. This effectively cancels the spell totally (at least, presuming they burned those pages off-screen).
- Oberon, ruler of the Third Race, exiled all of his people from Avalon for 1,001 years, leaving the Weird Sisters behind to guard the sea around the island. Some mortals manage to get by them and make it to Avalon, but the Weird Sisters can't follow without breaking Oberon's law. However, Oberon's law also says that they have to obey any mortal they swear service to, so they ally with the Archmage, knowing that he'll make them go to the island for his own reasons.
- Oberon's law also says that his people cannot steal certain magical items from mortals; they have to be given freely. To get around that, Puck makes an illusionary Bad Future to convince Goliath to give him the Phoenix Gate.
- In the Nineties X-Men animated series, as mentioned above under "Comics", the Master Mold and its army of Sentinels turn on Bolivar Trask and decide to conquer humanity. When Trask protests by reminding them that they were programmed to protect humans from mutants, Master Mold points out the Fridge Logic behind that by stating that mutants are humans. Thus, humans must be protected from themselves. Trask believes the Sentinels are in error, especially because he refuses to believe mutants and humans are the same species, but realizes he has created something much worse.