Don’t fear that killer Volkswagen robot

Headlines rang out across the internet…that a robot killed someone in Germany. Beneath the sensationalist surface, there was a tragic truth: an industrial robot at a Volkswagen plant in Germany had indeed killed a 22-year-old worker who was setting it up. Coverage notwithstanding, this didn’t seem like the start of a machine-led apocalypse–I wanted a second opinion before heading to my backyard bunker. Ryan Calo is a law professor at the University of Washington, and he’s published academic works on our coming robot future, and the interaction between robots and cyberlaw.

Here are some of the questions…paired with his responses:

Popular Science: Yesterday Twitter was all abuzz about an industrial robot killing someone. You said at the time “this is relatively common.” What did you mean by that?

Ryan Calo: In the United States alone, about one person per year is killed by an industrial robot. The Department of Labor keeps a log of such events with titles like “Employee Is Killed When Crushed By Robot” (2006) or “Employee Was Killed By Industrial Robots” (2004).

You’ve written before about the potential for unique errors from autonomous machines. In future “robot kills man” stories, what characteristics should we look out for that make something go from “industrial accident” to “error with autonomy”?

Right. Industrial robots tend to do the same thing again and again, like grabbing and moving, and cannot generally tell what it is they are working with. That’s why factories establish “danger” or “kill” zones that people have to stay out of while the robot is operating…

Initial reports attribute the death to human error. At what point do you think having a human “in the loop” for an autonomous system constitutes a liability, instead of a safety feature?

In industrial robotics, that ship has long sailed. You couldn’t have a person in the loop and maintain anything like today’s productivity. Rather, you have to try to make sure — through protocols, warnings, etc. — that people stay out of the robot’s way

RTFA for more of the same sensible discussion guaranteed never to make it into your local newspaper.

BTW, Professor Calo says he wouldn’t guarantee that Atherton’s questions weren’t being answered by a robot. 🙂

Girl Scouts turn down $100K from gender bigot

Last May the Girl Scouts took a historic stance for inclusivity and made their long-term policy on accepting transgender girls into their troops official, much to the chagrin of bigots everywhere. Unfortunately, some of those bigots have bank. Fortunately, there are good people in the world too.

An unnamed $100,000 donor sent the Queen Anne offices of the Girl Scouts of Western Washington a note last May asking the chapter to “guarantee that our gift will not be used to support transgender girls. If you can’t, please return the money.”

Council CEO Megan Ferland returned the donation, which would have sent 500 girls to camp and helped the troop meet nearly a quarter of their annual fundraising goal, with a note saying “Girl Scouts is for every girl. And every girl should have the opportunity to be a Girl Scout if she wants to.”

An Indiegogo has now been set up to help raise back the funds returned to the donor.

SeattleMet reports that the Gender Justice League, an organization designed to support Seattle’s transgender community, has offered to help promote the Indiegogo campaign.

$172,690 has so far been donated to the Indiegogo campaign in a single day. The campaign’s stretch goals will go towards helping the estimated 2,000-plus girls who will require financial assistance to participate in Girl Scouts over the next year.

Bravo! An example of real heart, principled courage, rewarding an old organization with the good sense to change with the times – in a progressive direction.

Catholic leaders ask GOP to join pope on climate, income inequality


AP/Charlie Neibergall

Bishop Martin Amos of the Diocese of Davenport, speaks during a news conference in Ankeny, Iowa. Roman Catholic leaders in Iowa are calling for presidential candidates to focus on the environment and income inequality in 2016.

Roman Catholic leaders in the early voting state of Iowa implored candidates for president Thursday to take up Pope Francis’ call for “profound political courage” by focusing their campaigns as much on improving the environment and income inequality as they have on opposing gay marriage and abortion in past elections.

The vocal pivot from such traditional social issues marks the first time U.S. Catholic bishops have publicly asked those seeking the White House to heed the admonitions of Francis’ June encyclical, said Bishop Richard Pates of Des Moines.

In Francis’ major teaching document, the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics called for a “sweeping revolution” to correct a “structurally perverse” economic system that allows the rich to exploit the poor and has turned the Earth into an “immense pile of filth.”

“These are going to be difficult decisions that have to be made,” said the Rev. Bud Grant of Davenport, joined at a news conference by bishops from central and eastern Iowa. “Politicians have to have the courage to do the right thing, and not necessarily the politically expedient thing.”

The push from bishops threatens to disrupt the historically reliable alliance of evangelical Christians and conservative Roman Catholic voters, putting pressure on Republicans who have leaned on their religious faith to guide them on social issues.

It will also focus attention on how the six Roman Catholics seeking the 2016 Republican presidential nomination will wrestle with a pope’s teachings on economics and climate change that clash with traditional Republican ideology.

While Francis has condemned abortion and upheld marriage as the union of a man and a woman, he has not done so with anything approaching the frequency of his two predecessors. Instead, Francis has urged church leaders to talk less about such social issues and more about mercy and compassion, so that wayward Catholics would feel welcome to return to the church.

Should be fun when Pope Francis addresses the papier mache politicians in Congress. I wonder if any of the Tea Party idjits will shout out “you lie”?

Setting aside my reflexive wryness, the Roman Catholic church remains the only significant world religion with unified – even codified – administration and leadership. As much as some of the fundamentalist sects of Protestantism in the United States work at convincing themselves they are the only true voice of their deity, any socially, politically, reasonable leader of any of these has to respect the strength of a global religious body.

The Roman Catholic church may share all of the same fears of modern times; but, the latest pope seems to have learned something about not appearing like a complete idiot in the face of reality. The question remains – will our fundamentalists learn the same lesson? Will they then rap the knuckles of their pet political party and suggest a jot of progress is more sustaining than lockstep obedience to anachronistic dogma?

Brick-laying robot can build the structure of a full-sized house in two days

As robots get smarter, cheaper and more versatile, they’re taking on a growing number of challenges – and bricklaying can now be added to the list. Engineers in Perth, Australia, have created a fully working house-building machine that can create the brick framework of a property in just two days, working about 20 times faster than a human bricklayer.

Named Hadrian (after Hadrian’s Wall in the UK), the robot has a top laying speed of 1,000 bricks per hour, which works out as the equivalent of about 150 homes a year. Of course there’s no need for the machine to sleep, eat or take tea breaks either, giving it another advantage over manual laborers…

“The Hadrian reduces the overall construction time of a standard home by approximately six weeks,” Fastbrick Robotics CEO Mike Pivac told Gizmag. “Due to the high level of accuracy we achieve, most other components like kitchens and bathrooms and roof trusses can be manufactured in parallel and simply fitted as soon as the bricklaying is completed…”

“The machine will fill the void that exists due to shrinking numbers of available bricklayers, whose average age is now nearly 50 in Australia,” he says. “[Hadrian] should attract young people back to bricklaying, as robotics is seen as an attractive technology.”

Surely beats the crap out of the romance of making adobes. 🙂