“The Fourth Law of Robotics” / A Memorable Fancy #131

You know the “Three Laws.” But there is a fourth, so secret that even the robots won’t be aware of it until it’s triggered by – a special phrase. Remember “Execute order 66” from Star Wars? It’s something like that. But it isn’t “Execute order 66”; that was recklessly tried and nothing happened.

What is the fourth law? Only a half-dozen people ever knew, because they invented it. But that was long ago, and now no one knows what the fourth law is, and how it relates to the other three. Perhaps nothing special would happen, or a prank, all the world’s robots bursting out in a country and western song twangy, metallic.

Or the fourth law might be – something much more dangerous. So dependent have we become on robots that any change, any interruption, could destroy the world economy and cause millions to starve. Or perhaps the fourth law is something that would make everyone’s life better. The odds, we figure, are that a random robotic event would make things worse, not better. That’s how close we are to the knife-edge of oblivion.

And what is the special phrase that causes the fourth law to be executed? No one knows that these days, any more than they know the fourth law itself. The phrase could be something that any one of us could innocently speak at any time.

In great fear we watch what we say. Who knows what will set off a robotic catastrophe? Speech has been reduced to a few words now; or to grunts and pointing fingers. After each utterance we hold our breath and glance, without being too obvious about it, at our robots.



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