Volkswagen's 'killer robot' doesn't mean machines are about to take over

The death of a factory worker was probably a tragic industrial accident, rather than evil AI.

by Rachel Savage
Last Updated: 23 Oct 2015

Robots are taking our jobs and will soon, what with the frantic advances in artificial intelligence (AI), be ruling the world. These deep-seated fears mean the death of a worker yesterday after an accident at a Volkswagen plant is making ‘robot kills man’ headlines around the world.

The machine grabbed the 22-year-old contractor and crushed him against a metal plate while he was installing it with a colleague on Monday, in the factory in Baunatal, 100km north of Frankfurt. He died of his injuries in hospital yesterday, VW spokesman Heiko Hilwig said, according to the Guardian.

Hilwig said the initial conclusion was that the tragic incident, which is being currently being investigated by German prosecutors, was down to ‘human error’. That would make it an industrial accident as opposed to an autonomous robot rebelling against its human master.

It also wasn’t one of VW’s new ‘collaborative’ robots, which work alongside humans on the assembly line, but are designed to be slower and less powerful than those in a safety cage. And manufacturing is actually safer than bar work, according to stats pulled out by the FT. But the story (or at least the headlines) nonetheless fits uncomfortably with the rising fears of robots taking over from people in every part of our lives.

The car industry is one of the most automated in manufacturing, particularly the uber-efficient Germans. And VW said last year it was coping with a shortage of new workers by replacing retiring baby boomers with robots, although it emphasised machines would only be taking over the most monotonous tasks. With tech billionaires such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates warning about the dangers of AI, we humans clearly haven’t got our heads round what the rise of robots will mean for us yet.

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