Man dies in robot accident at Volkswagen. Who is responsible?

A 22-year-old contract worker died last week after being crushed by a stationary robot at Volkswagen’s Baunatal plant north of Frankfurt.

Media reports of the accident said the man was “killed by a robot”, although a spokesman for the automaker said it was more likely that human error was to blame. He said the robot normally operated within a confined area at the plant, grabbing auto parts and manipulating them.

The Guardian’s report on the case ended with the sentence: “German news agency DPA reported that prosecutors were considering whether to bring charges, and if so, against whom.”

Commenting on the case the director of the Centre for Cognitive Science at the University of Sussex, Ron Chrisley, predicted that accidents such as this would become more common as the use of robots in the workplace increased. 

But he added: “Although there is a sense in which it is legitimate to refer to this as a case of ‘Robot kills worker’ as some reports have done, it would be misleading, verging on irresponsible to do so.” This was because the robots now in use in factories were not autonomous or responsible for their actions, he said. Therefore they can only kill “in the sense that a hurricane can kill”. 

Blay Whitby, a lecturer in artificial intelligence at the University of Sussex agreed but added: “It is important for journalists to take an interest in this sort of event because in an increasingly automated world where we delegate more and more decision-making to machines of various sorts there should be much more public awareness of the technology and public scrutiny of the ethical issues involved.”

Read more on robot ethics from Cosmos: Learning to live with robots 



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