What can we do about robots gone rogue?

A chess-playing robot that fractured a boy’s finger was apparently irked when the seven-year-old began playing without waiting for the machine to complete its move. While such incidents are rare, they only exacerbate our fear of robots. Mint examines the issue

How often do we see such incidents?

Not very often. Robert Williams was the first worker to die at the hands of a robot in January 1979 at the Ford Motor plant in Michigan in the United States. In March 2018, an Uber driverless car hit and killed Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year-old woman in Arizona. Robotic surgeries, on their part, are minimally invasive but can also get botched up due to software or machine errors. Between 2000 and 2013, there were 144 deaths, 1,391 patient injuries and 8,061 device malfunctions during robotic surgeries, according to a study published in scientific journal PLOS One in 2016.

But aren’t robots helpful too?

Certainly. Lighter and smaller collaborative robots (cobots) routinely perform repetitive, monotonous and dangerous jobs in warehouses and factories where humans can get tired and commit a mistake. AI-powered social robots, on their part, interact with humans and other robots, and offer solace and comfort to the elderly and mentally challenged. Locomotive robots have been designed to navigate difficult terrains like hills, deserts, forests, pipelines, drains, sewers etc., and have also helped humans capture images on the Moon and Mars. Robots can even vacuum your floor and cook for you.

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Ex Machina

Then why do we fear robots will hurt humans?

Many people believe robots are turning  sentient. Sci-fi movies starring intelligent robots like Ultron, Skynet, Sentinels (killing machines in the Matrix), and  India’s own (Rajnikanth’s) Chitti, have only compounded this fear. In fact, the first  autonomous drone attack may have already happened in Libya, according to a March 2021 report from a UN panel.

Is this why humans attack robots too?

In 2015, a Canadian robot hitchhiked its way across Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands, but was decapitated by vandals in Philadelphia. In 2017, a Russian teaching robot Alantim was beaten to “death” with a baseball bat, following which its owners built the world’s first dedicated robot cemetery. People have also thrown rocks at Alphabet unit Waymo’s self-driving cars, and in December 2018, a man even shot at a Waymo self-driving car. Experts say these could be retaliation for losing jobs or even fear of a robot uprising.

How should we address the issue?

Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics are just the starting point. Factories typically build “danger” or “kill” zones to warn people to steer clear of working industrial robots. Bodies like the UN need to devise frameworks to rein in “killer robots” that include bombs, weapons, and dog-like robots that use digital technologies and AI to make almost autonomous decisions that can harm humans. Again, since machines currently cannot be held responsible for their actions, their programmers and owners certainly can.


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