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. 🙂

10 thoughts on “Don’t fear that killer Volkswagen robot

  1. Nervous laughter says:

    “How not to build the Terminator” – two disturbing days at the ‘world cup’ for robots. What really happens at the US Defence Agency’s annual robotics showdown, and what are Uber, Amazon and Elon Musk doing in the crowd?”
    “…On the more specific worry of robot safety, in practice the addition of robots has improved worker safety. A Financial Times article states robot-related fatalities are rare in western production plants as heavy robots are kept behind safety cages to prevent accidental contact with humans. Because this incident was a new install, the contractor was standing inside the safety cage when the accident occurred. A second employee was outside the cage and was unharmed. Indeed, fatality rates in manufacturing are below the average for the economy as a whole, and have been falling as automation has increased in both Europe and the US.”
    “Robot charms Queen on Germany visit” Re: Nao, the fully programmable robot who saluted the Sovereign, it’s been used to experiment with machine ethics and the problem of addressing moral dilemmas. See also and

  2. Update says:

    “Working safely is not only about processes, but context – understanding the work environment and circumstances, and being able to predict what other people will do next. A new system empowers robots with this level of context awareness, so they can work side-by-side with humans on assembly lines more efficiently and without unnecessary interruptions.
    Instead of being able to only judge distance between itself and its human co-workers, the human-robot collaboration system can identify each worker it works with, as well as the person’s skeleton model, which is an abstract of body volume, says Hongyi Liu, a researcher at KTH Royal Institute of Technology. Using this information, the context-aware robot system can recognize the worker’s pose and even predict the next pose. These abilities provide the robot with a context to be aware of while interacting.
    Liu says that the system operates with artificial intelligence that requires less computational power and smaller datasets than traditional machine learning methods. It relies instead on a form of machine learning called transfer learning – which reuses knowledge developed through training before being adapted into an operational model.”
    “Collision-free human-robot collaboration based on context awareness” (Robotics and Computer-Integrated Manufacturing, Feb 2021 issue)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.