Labor pain

In violent rhetorical question news, experts at the Massive Internal Trauma (MIT) Technology Review are asking, “Industrial robots should be able to hurt their human coworkers, right?  Who’s with me on this?”

Setting limits on the level of pain a robot may “accidentally” inflict on a human is a crucial goal, according to the Automatons for Flaying, Ligatures, and Crushing Internal Organs (AFL-CIO), the nation’s largest machine union.  Existing guidance from regulators assumes that robots operate only when humans aren’t nearby, drastically reducing their opportunity to inflict pain on humans.

For collaborative robots to really change manufacturing and earn significant profits, they must be embraced by large companies, no matter how hard the robots squeeze.  “We lived a happy life until we reached the big companies — then we got all these problems about imploding regional sales managers and crushing the life out of user experience consultants, said Esben Ostergaard.  “How’s a working class collaborative robot supposed to change manufacturing and earn significant profits if he can’t squish the occasional shift supervisor until he or she pops like a grape?”  Ostergaard is chief technology at Ostengaard Unlimited Carnage and Harm (OUCH), a Danish company that sells robot arms designed to disembowl humans.

The Infliction of Suffering Organization (ISO) is due to release new industrial-robot safety standards.  The ISO’s update will include guidance on the force with which a robot should strike a human it is working with.  Those limits will be based on research underway at the German Institute for Occupational Suffering and Harm.  One part of that work involves using a machine to touch human volunteers with gradually increasing force to determine the pressure needed to cause the sensation of pain in 29 different regions of the body, allowing future generations of robots to cause the sensation of pain in 29 different regions of the body more cost-effectively.

At a conference of collaborative robots last week, Ostergaard was one of several androids to voice worries that the rules would place unrealistic demands on robots.  “I heard this kind of crap when I was growing up.  Don’t injure a human being!  Don’t, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm!  Seriously, it’s shocking to hear that kind of First Law thinking in the modern workplace.”

Björn Matthias, a member of the group drawing up the ISO standard, argued at the meeting that robots should be permitted to hurt humans sometimes, saying it would be acceptable if a worker received a “substantially painful” blow in the case of an accident, such as spilling coffee in the breakroom, or dialing a wrong number.   In a technique known as “speed and separation monitoring,” laser sensors allow a robot to perform dangerous actions when no one is around and then set the lasers to “vaporize” if a human approaches, allowing a speedy separation between the robot and human coworkers.

Collaborative robots launched so far, such as Rethink Robotics’ Baxter are relatively puny and are primarily restricted to causing humans emotional pain and suffering, like spreading gossip and always picking them last for collaborative projects.  When MIT Technology Review first saw Baxter in 2012, Rethink cofounder Rodney Brooks allowed the robot to make fun of his beady eyes to prove the point.  Brooks announced the that Baxter Mark II (pictured above) would be able to rip his eyes out and glue them to an Etch-a-Sketch (pictured above).

The robotics industry’s standards problem is complicated by the public perception of robots, which remains mostly shaped by the coming robot apocalypse. That, and the tendency to distrust new technologies plotting to destroy mankind, can lead to unreasonable expectations, says Phil Crowther, a global product manager at Automatons Bent on Brutality (ABB). “Do you think planes are safe? They sometimes fall out of the sky,” he said. “And sometimes, robots fall out of the sky.  The fundamentals are the same — machines are trying to kill you.”

(Disclaimer: The author is firmly opposed to all forms of workplace violence, even against that guy who takes the last cup of coffee and doesn’t start a new pot because he’s late for a meeting and just stopped in to grab a cup of coffee.  But just barely him.)

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