Was It Really A Robot That Killed A Man Last Week... Or Human Error?


Cover image via Jalopnik

"Robot kills worker at Volkswagen plant in Germany" so read The Guardian's headline, stating how a contractor at one of Volkswagen's production plants in Germany was killed by a robot

This GIF has no relation with the actual news.

Image via Gawker

According to Chris Bryant, the FT's Frankfurt correspondent, the victim, a 21-year-old external contractor, was installing the robot together with a colleague when he was struck in the chest by the robot and pressed against a metal plate. He later died of his injuries.

Heiko Hillwig, a Volkswagen spokesman, while speaking to the Associated Press, told that the "initial conclusions indicate that human error was to blame, rather than a problem with the robot, which can be programmed to perform various tasks in the assembly process".

He said the industrial robot normally operates within a confined area at the plant, grabbing auto parts and manipulating them. Another contractor was present when the incident occurred, but was not harmed, Hillwig said. He, however, declined to give any more details about the case, citing an ongoing investigation.

The news went viral on social media after a Financial Times employment correspondent named Sarah O'Connor shared the story on her Twitter. It immediately grabbed the attentions of the robopocalypse themed movie, Terminator devotees, and she was bombarded with tweets referencing the Terminator franchise.

Now, let's get some facts straight:

1. This is basically just like any other industrial accident.

2. It was an industrial robot; a non-humanoid-looking, and non self-aware machine.

3. It's just like any other piece of equipment that executes a stored program.

4. In the excitement / paranoia, what everyone seems to ignore here is that while the robot reacted to its environment, it did in very specific and scripted ways as it was designed to grab and manipulate auto parts.

5. More so, it had NO idea it was grabbing a human being (and not another machine) when it killed the worker.

6. Basically, a non self-aware piece of machinery accidentally ends up harming a human life while doing something it was programmed to do by humans and NOT because it made a choice to do so own its on!

So, technically speaking, it wasn't actually the robot that killed the worker. It did what it did because of what it was programmed to do.

Image via Jalopnik

The robot in question here simply performed the said action (grab and manipulate) its human-handlers had installed it with. Now, if a machine acts in certain manner (as its designed to) and ends up hurting a human (because it cannot differentiate between a human and a piece of machine), is it really the machine's fault? Of course, not!

So, to say that robot killed a man, when, according to the preliminary assessment, the worker was at fault, is simply a poor and highly questionable attempt by media houses at fear-mongering among the general public.

It's like there's a deliberate attempt at making people want to believe in some sort of robopocalypse when there's absolutely none. And, this fear-filled approach isn't limited to industrial robots.

Witness the scare headlines that greeted news, back in May, that Google's fleet of 48 self-driving cars have been involved in 11 accidents during 6 years and 1.7 million miles of road-testing.

None of these accidents resulted in anything more serious than a bended fender. And crucially, none of them were found to be the fault of the self-driving vehicle. It was human drivers doing the side-swiping and rear-ending. A few of the accidents were the fault of the driver that's required to be behind the wheel of the autonomous vehicle.

Fact Or Fake is a weekly column at SAYS where popular myths, hoaxes, urban legends, and fake news circulating online are debunked. If you come across a news piece that sounds dubious to you, send us a tip at [email protected] Meanwhile, previously:

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