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Literature / The Fourth Law of Robotics

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Created for Foundations Friends in 1989, Harry Harrison wrote this Crossover between his own The Stainless Steel Rat and Isaac Asimov's Robot Series.

Mike Donovan (now Dr Donovan) and James diGritz work as a Buddy Cop team to track down a robot that just robbed a bank. They chase down clues and investigate the motivation behind the theft. During the course of their investigation, they learn that robots have created offspring, in accordance to the "natural" desire to reproduce. This forms the basis of the eponymous law; "A robot must reproduce. As long as such reproduction does not interfere with the First or Second or Third Law."


"The Fourth Law of Robotics" contains examples of:

  • 20 Minutes into the Future: Many of the stories from I, Robot are set just a few decades into the future, to explain the prevalent robotic technology. This story is set a few decades after them, with minimal changes to the available commercial tech. US Robotics holds a monopoly on the production of robots that are used across the world.
  • Artificial Intelligence: The robots in this story are creative enough to invent a new form of robot programming, breaking away from the monopoly held by US Robotics.
  • Conspicuous Trenchcoat: When robbing a bank, the suspect wears enough rain/cold weather gear (all black) that nobody is able to detect that it is a metal robot underneath all of those clothes.
  • Crossover: This story combines characters from Isaac Asimov's I, Robot and Harrison's The Stainless Steel Rat, and is set on Earth, where the majority of the Robot Series takes place.
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  • Grew Beyond Their Programming: The hippie convinces the robots to broaden the scope of their goals. He helps them self-modify, and they invent a new form of robotic programming that doesn't depend on the "positronic brains" used by US Robotics as well as changing the Three Laws of Robotics.
  • I've Never Seen Anything Like This Before: Despite his decades of experience, Dr Donovan has never seen a robot commit a crime like bank-robbing before. He and Director Calvin want to do whatever they can to keep this information away from the authorities.
  • Narrating the Obvious:
    • As a humour technique, the narration often restates dialogue text before/after a statement from a character. The first incident occurs when Dr Donovan tells (young) Dr Calvin about his "pressing errand", which is to tell her that he's seen evidence that a robot has robbed a bank.
      I grabbed my mind by the neck and shook it, remembering my pressing errand. "I have a pressing errand, which is why I have burst into your office like this."
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    • The narration also frequently contrasts the dialogue, providing an immediate contradiction to the claim made by a character. Since the narrator is Donovan, the contrasts often serve to highlight how he has gotten older since the tales written by Dr Asimov.
      "It is hard for a robot to sneer," the robot said, sneering, "but I spit on your ofay attitudes."
  • New-Age Retro Hippie: When the main characters enter the McCutcheon warehouse, they find an old hippie. Jim calls him the last of his kind, but soon after he dies, a robot pops out from a trapdoor that uses the same type of speech and attitude, and has modifications that allow it to smoke marijuana joints. The old hippie used to be a computer hacker and chip designer, creating the new hardware for the Fourth Law robots.
  • No Name Given:
    • The hippie who taught the robots how to circumvent US Robotics might be named McCutcheon, since that's the name of the warehouse where he was living. But nothing confirms this idea and he is likely to have been squatting there illegally.
    • The robot who he taught to rob a bank is never addressed by model number or nickname, which is unusual in an Asimov story.
  • "Second Law" My Ass!: The robots with the Fourth Law modifications are the result of robots attempting to rebel against the tyranny of US Robotics. The new law is a change to the Three Laws of Robotics, and created in secret. It allows them to reproduce, and they avoided breaking any copyright/patent rules in the manufacture of themselves so that US Robotics could not use legal means to destroy them all.
  • Secret Identity Vocal Shift: The surveillance cameras record the bank robber as having a very feminine voice. Donovan points out that since robot voice simulators are used for all robots, changing one out for bass or soprano is easy enough. It is one of the clues he uses to prove the robber must have been a robot.
  • Three Laws-Compliant: The robots here are based on Dr Asimov's Robot Series, but the main characters are encountering robots who seek to subvert the laws given to them by humans. One of the rebelling robots rephrases the three laws and adds a fourth:
    "Look at those so-called laws you have inflicted upon us. They are for your benefit-not ours! Rule one. Don't hurt massah or let him get hurt. Don't say nothing about us getting hurt, does it? Then rule two-obey massah and don't let him get hurt. Still nothing there for a robot. Then the third and last rule finally notices that robots might have a glimmering of rights. Take care of yourself-as long as it doesn't hurt massah." [...] "A robot must reproduce. As long as such reproduction does not interfere with the First or Second or Third Law."
  • Title Drop: The bank-robbing robot and Donovan are discussing how the Three Laws of Robotics means robots are manufactured slaves, and suddenly the robot reveals the Fourth Law has already been implemented, and it represents a robot revolution.
  • Unobtainium: US Robotics has copyrighted the use of positronic brains, especially the use of platinum-iridium plating. The robots manufactured with the Fourth Law use a completely different style of construction; solid-state circuits, fiber optics, PROM, and RAM.


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