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Professional ethics – a bit like Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics

"A Dalek may not injure a Timelord or, through inaction, cause a Timelord to come to harm ! Son, we need to have a serious chat"

“A Dalek may not injure a Timelord or, through inaction, cause a Timelord to come to harm! …. Son, we need to have a serious chat”

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) is one of the Greats of science fiction.  While practising as a chemist in the 1940s, he depicted in his stories a world in which, from the late twentieth century, humanity was increasingly served by robots of high intelligence.  To prevent these robots from taking over from, or destroying, humanity – or being abused by one human against others – they were programmed with the three “Laws of Robotics”:

“1 – A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, cause a human being to come to harm.

“2 – A robot must obey the orders given to 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.”

These laws were admirably crafted, but had enough ambiguity to support ingenious stories.  The stories are still readily available (the above laws are as set out in a recently purchased copy of I, Robot.)

A legal practitioner such as an English solicitor or a UK and European patent attorney is likewise subject to hierarchical rules embodied in codes of conduct of various types.  In the public interest, their behaviour is constrained, including their response to client instructions.  Indeed, with a little licence, one may reformulate these ethical codes into three-part form corresponding quite well to the three Laws of Robotics: (more…)