The word ‘robot’ is something that most of us are very familiar with. It is used in all kinds of contexts throughout society. For example, it is not just machines that are referred to as ‘robots.’ In some cases, people can also be described as ‘robotic.’ The adjective just seems to fit if an individual lacks warmth or is very methodical in their movements and routines. So, the term itself has become curiously ubiquitous, even if its literal meaning only applies to mechanical beings.
This constant presence within our language is at odds with the human perception and knowledge of robotic technologies, both of which are growing at an exponential rate. As these technologies become increasingly advanced, the amount of ethical questions about their function and purpose multiply. Should robots be given personal rights? What restrictions should govern heir use? Could a robot intentionally and consciously disobey an order?
It is this last question that scientists, academics, and engineers continue to grapple with. While all robots are programmed to obey the law established by Isaac Asimov – do no harm to humans – there are still concerns that intelligent machines could eventually develop the ability to make this decision for themselves. It is a situation that has been explored in Hollywood blockbusters like Terminator and iRobot, but could killer robots be a real possibility?
This article will discuss some of the most concerning incidents of robots causing harm to human beings.
Volkswagen Death, Germany
In 2015, a twenty two year old Volkswagen technician was killed at a factory in Germany. He died after an industrial robot picked him up and crushed him against a hard metal surface. The young man suffered severe injuries to his chest and was rushed to hospital, but sadly died from his wounds. The incident is believed to be the first death in Europe to be caused by a robotic machine. While Volkswagen claims that the robot malfunctioned due to human error, it is a chilling reminder of just how powerful this technology can be.
Kawasaki Death, Japan
The Volkswagen tragedy may have been the first of its kind in Europe, but incidents like this have been seen before. All the way back in 1981, Japanese engineer Kenji Urada was pushed into an industrial grinder by a robot. He was working on the machine and he forgot to completely shut it down first. For reasons not known, the robot activated itself and forced Urada into the grinder with its hydraulic arm. In the aftermath of the death, Kawasaki was subject to a rigorous labor standards investigation.
SKH Metals Death, India
In yet another automotive related tragedy, a twenty four year old man was killed by a robot while working at a car parts factory in India. In fact, this incident occurred just a fortnight after the death on the Volkswagen production line, in 2015. According to reports, the man was adjusting a metal sheet, in the hands of a robot, when it stabbed him in the stomach. The death made headline news, not just because it was the second fatality of its kind in as many weeks, but also because prosecutors struggled to assign liability.
Friendly Fire, Northern Cape of Africa
If death by robot on a production line isn’t enough to scare you, this major security incident on the Northern Cape of Africa surely will be. In an event that is unprecedented, nine soldiers were killed by a malfunctioning anti-aircraft cannon, in 2007. The men were serving with the South African National Defense Force and they died after the military robot began shooting unexpectedly. It wounded a further fourteen soldiers before it could be brought under control.
The Naughty Robot, United States
This last example is a little different. Rather than a robot that manages to override the order not to harm, it’s time to talk about a machine that is programmed solely to do so. It is the brainchild of American engineer Alexander Reben, who designed a unique robot to try and get people talking about the dangers of AI and advanced robotic technologies. The Reben robot is programmed to strike (and prick) a human finger if it detects one. This is in direct conflict with the Asimov law that says do no harm.
If a robot is safe and programmed correctly, it should see the presentation of a finger as a direct order. So far so good; the Reben robot is able to recognize this command. Where it goes wrong, however, is the failure to understand that the order is in direct opposition to the most important rule of all; carry out all orders, unless they will lead to human harm. As the Reben robot is unable to process this conditional command, it cannot, technically, be trusted to operate safely.
Why the Future is Bright for Our Robotic Friends
Despite all of these unsettling stories, there is no doubt that more robots will be appearing in factories and on production lines in the years to come. They are already playing a vital role in a huge number of industries and, while there are lots of ethical, economic, and safety concerns about this, scientists agree that it is a largely unstoppable development. In short, we are fated to replace huge proportions of the global workforce with robot substitutes.
The real problems start when questions of intelligence are introduced. Clearly, the smarter a robot, the better it will be at carrying out tasks. The other side to this predicament though is that intelligence increases the probability of similarly intelligent malfunctions. The original meaning of the word ‘robot’ is slave. And, if history has taught us anything, it is that slaves will always eventually revolt. So, the real question has to be, are intelligence and freedom two qualities that are, essentially, inseparable?
If it turns out that consciousness can be isolated and set apart from free will, is it morally acceptable to do so? These are tough questions and, even with the brightest minds in the world investigating them, we don’t have all of the answers yet. What we do know is that, in the years to come, our understanding of robots will either continue to expand or it will shrink as the machines grow too advanced for our control and intellect. It’s a brave new world out there, but whether it will belong to us for long remains to be seen.