Robot-caused death

A robot has tragically caused the death of a VW worker, we learn in today’s news coverage. According to Wikipedia (yes, I know…) this is, quite remarkably, only the third reported industrial robot-caused fatality.

The first two reported deaths of workers caused by manufacturing robots happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s:

Robert Williams was killed in Detroit by a parts recovery robot in the Ford Flatrock Casting Plant (Michigan) in January 1979. A circuit judge in the US found the manufacturer of the equipment criminally liable and ordered Unit Handling Systems USD$10m to the Williams family.

Kenji Urada was killed in Akashi (near Kobe) by an industrial robot in a Kawasaki Heavy Industries plant in July 1981.

There is a temptation to think about some kind of intentionality (however weak) or malign tendency by the machine here, largely because of the word ‘robot’ and because of the detailed imagination of what constitutes the entities we might commonly understand to be referred to by that term. The chatter on Twitter about the sad VW incident certainly seems to invoke the kind of Asimov-style Sci-Fi robotics of I, Robot and the Terminator.

The corollary to this is, of course, that we have become very used to seeking blame located in a single figure of a ‘wrong-doer’. Indeed, we have sought (in the UK) to enshrine this in law after a fashion by holding senior manager personally to account in corporate manslaughter cases. Thus it is unsurprising that TIME magazine report that:

Prosecutors are still deciding whether to bring charges and whom they would pursue.

One can argue, however, that a desire for singular culpability is misconceived. The workers tragically killed in all three of cases were involved in complex assemblages or systems that, even with contemporary safety systems, have contingencies that might lead to undesirable ends. In this way, while the contexts are very different, the worker in today’s robotically enable factory is a distant relation of the 19th century mill worker powerfully described by Friedrich Engels.

Workers both in the 19th century and today have to be alive to the operation of a complex and continent manufacturing system, with many kinds of rules and procedures that circumscribe a place for the human body and its function within industrial manufacturing. If one places their body outside of that circumscribed place, or if the rules of circumscription shift (by accident or design) then the body is at risk of harm.

There may all sorts of factors that lead to a manufacturing accident, but I would hazard that they are more often than not a condition of what it means to work and how that work is designed: how the body fits within the system, or how that system is programmed to accommodate the body, rather than a malign or supernatural robotic agency.

For example: Urada was trapped by the work arm of the robot which pinned him against a machine which cuts gears and was killed. He had entered a prohibited area around the robot to repair it. According to factory officials, a mesh fence around the robot would have shut off the power when unhooked, but instead of opening it, Urada had apparently jumped over the fence. He set the machine on manual control but accidentally brushed against the on-switch, and the claw of the robot pushed him against the machine tooling device.

A grizzly story and one might look at the safety procedures and equipment. There are of course standards and codes of practice for safe working with robots (by the ANSI and the HSE for example). Nevertheless, it remains the case that Urada transgressed those procedures putting himself at risk. We can only speculate about why he did so, but again that is a condition of work, not of robots as such.

All three of the deaths caused by manufacturing robots are tragic and all three have and will no doubt prompt questions about how complex systems of manufacture that may be hazardous to the human body can be made as safe as possible. They could, and perhaps should, also prompt questions about how we work (see, for example, this article in the FT).

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