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5 questions (and answers) about robots that kill people


After sharing a story on Twitter about a robot who killed a man in Germany, Ryan Calo, professor of robotics and cyberlaw at the University of Washington School of Law, replied that it is not that unusual for robots to kill people. Naturally, I had a few questions. Here they are with Calo's answers, including why robots aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

Margarita Noriega:What just happened in Germany?

Ryan Calo:A man was killed while setting up an industrial robot at a Volkswagen plant. Apparently the robot grabbed the man and crushed him against a metal plate.

Margarita Noriega:You mentioned that this was more commonplace than people might think. Can you explain?

Ryan Calo:About a person a year dies in robot related accidents in the U.S. alone. You can see this in the statistics complied by OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Recent incidents include "Maintenance Worker Is Struck And Killed By A Robot"(2013) and "Robot Crushes And Kills Worker Inside Robot Work Cell" (2012). The reason people are reporting on this death, I think, is that robots are very much on the mind. Of course, we should keep this all in perspective—more people are killed by bees or sharks than robots, at least in the United States.

Margarita Noriega:What do we mean by "robot" in these cases, anyway? And how is "likeness to humans" defined?

Ryan Calo:In my work, I define a robot as having three qualities that distinguish it from previous or constituent technologies. A robot must sense its environment, process what it sense, and then be organized to act directly on the world. I don't define human likeness because I don't think it's necessary. I do, however, think that robots that look and act like people raise particularly interesting legal and ethical issues. You can read more here in my article Robotics and the Lessons of Cyberlaw.

Margarita Noriega:How are these cases handled, since the robot has no malicious intent?

Ryan Calo:Most industrial accidents—robot or otherwise—are handled in the U.S. by workers compensation. This means that the worker or their family receives a statutorily defined amount of money from a fund, depending on the severity of their injury. Technically the worker could sue the manufacturer of the robot but would have to show that s/he operated the robot within specifications. Usually some human error is involved, as apparently was the case in Germany. Where it gets tricky is when robots are not designed for any particular purpose and can run third party apps.

Another hard issue is what to do when the robot displays emergent behavior, that is, behavior no one involved in the programming could anticipate. My paper Robotics and the Lessons of Cyberlaw discusses. We're already seeing this with Internet bots that, for instance, threaten someone's life.

Margarita Noriega:You predict here that robot cases will increase. How does one avoid being killed by a robot, anyway?

Ryan Calo:I think the answer is that you are very unlikely to be killed by a robot, unless you come into military conflict with the United States. If you are, for instance, a factory worker, it is very important to follow established security protocols around robots and especially to stay out of the danger zone unless you are sure the robot is off. What I predicted in that 2009 blog post was that robotics would become the subject of laws and legal cases. And it is. Think of all the recent cases and statutes involving drones.

Margarita Noriega:What question haven't I asked about killer robots?

Ryan Calo:One question is what is different about industrial robots. Industrial robots generally stay in one place and do the same thing over and over. They are dangerous because they can exert enormous force are not usually able to sense the presence of a person. As robots come to do more and more things, as they leave the factory floor and enter our offices, hospitals, and homes, they will be designed to be much safer.