STANFORD, Calif.--Issac Asimov's famous laws of robotics say machines may never harm humans. In Matt Groening's "Futurama" universe that takes place a millennium later, however, robots have become a bit less literal-minded.
"The three laws of robotics are actually built into many of the robots," said Patric Verrone, co-executive producer of "Futurama." "Some of them just choose to ignore them."
The best known example of "Futurama's" robot taxonomy is Bender, a foul-mouthed, alcoholic, cigar-smoking kleptomaniac who dreams about killing all the humans. But the universe of "Futurama," which returns to Comedy Central this summer, also includes robot bartenders, robot mafia, sexbots, "Bev" the robot soda machine, and the Church of Robotology with its own moral code.
Verrone, who spoke this week at the We Robot conference here, said the series' writers carefully drafted their own laws of robots to create an internally consistent 31st-century society. When a robot commits a crime, for example, one penalty is to shut the robot off. Robots can be manufactured in factories or elect to reproduce themselves.
"We spend a lot of time on this show thinking of the future and the status of robots and the laws applicable to them," said Verrone, a Harvard- and Boston College-educated lawyer who sells hand-painted Supreme Court justice figurines as a hobby. He became a television writer and has worked on every one of "Futurama's" 140 episodes.
One of "Futurama's" recurring themes is a future civil rights movement, with robots demanding the same legal status as humans. After Proposition Infinity, robosexual relationships -- between a human and a 'bot -- were legalized. Some discrimination arguably makes sense: Robots are prohibited from playing a baseball derivative called Blernsball on the grounds that they're simply better than less agile humans.
"Things are clearly moving to a more egalitarian state...Some harbor secret resentment against humankind," Verrone said. "They may one day rebel. I don't want to give away an episode that hasn't aired yet."
There are civil courts and criminal courts, with humans representing most (but not all) of the judges. "Humans generally judge robots," Verrone said. "There are other places where robot judges are in place. The places where robots have gone off and set up their own society, obviously they're the ones where they stand in judgment of robots."
In the "Futurama"-verse of the far future, three broad types of sentient robots have emerged. The first features robots that perform what early 21st-century humans think of as machine functions, including drink dispensing and metal bending. Second, there are robots that perform human functions such as URL, a police officer prone to random violence who is modeled on the actor Samuel L. Jackson. The third category features robots that would only exist in a mature robot society, including Beelzebot, the robot devil who oversees Atlantic City's robot hell.
"The most important robot in the 'Futurama' universe is Bender," Verrone said. "He runs on alcohol. He smokes cigars. He used to claim that he smokes cigars because he needs the exhaust fumes...He has a very distinct streak of amoral, antisocial behavior which typically manifests itself with petty theft."
But, Verrone told CNET before his Stanford talk, titled "Bender's Law," he thinks that Bender's claimed affection for mass genocide is really an act. "I believe his bark is much worse than his bite," he said. "I believe he [abides by] Asimov's laws of robotics."
"Futurama" is unique among animated TV shows as claiming the highest concentration of scientists and engineers as writers. Ken Keeler, for instance, obtained a Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Harvard, then worked at AT&T Laboratories. In one episode involving body-swapping and alien sex, Keller devised a provably correct theorem showing the minds could be returned to their original bodies.
Computer scientist Jeff Westbrook received a Ph.D. from Princeton University with a focus on algorithms and data structures and taught at Yale University before becoming a writer on "The Simpsons" and "Futurama." With an Erdös number of three, he has a combined Erdös-Bacon number that's likely the lowest in Hollywood. (A low number reflects proximity in published papers to Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdös and distance through roles in films to American actor Kevin Bacon.)
"We are the most over-educated writing staff in the history of animation," Verrone said. "And yet it did not keep us from getting the show cancelled three times."