BERLIN — Prosecutors are leading an unusual investigation after a robot killed a contractor at a Volkswagen production plant in western Germany on Monday.
According to Germany's DPA news agency, the victim was in the process of installing the stationary robot when it suddenly struck and crushed the young man. According to the Financial Times, the contractor died in a hospital.
German prosecutors said Wednesday that they are investigating the cause of the accident. "We will then decide whether to bring charges, and, if so, against whom," the prosecutor's office of the city of Kassel said in a statement.
According to prosecutors, the accident is the first of its kind in Germany. Despite the increasing ubiquity of robots in manufacturing plants in Germany, they had not been involved in a workplace death — until now.
Volkswagen — one of the world's biggest auto manufacturers — said a technical defect was unlikely to have caused the victim's death. According to the Financial Times, most robots are not considered to pose any risk to human workers:
Robot-related fatalities are rare in Western production plants as robots are kept behind safety cages to prevent accidental contact with humans. In this instance the contractor was standing inside the safety cage when the accident occurred. (...)
A Volkswagen spokesman stressed that the robot was not one of the new generation of lightweight collaborative robots that work side-by-side with workers on the production line and forgo safety cages.
Nevertheless, robots seem to have been involved in several workplace accidents, as the New York Times reported last year. The paper referenced many lethal accidents in U.S. factories involving robots, dating to 2001, 2006, and 2011.
In Britain alone, authorities documented 77 robot-related accidents in 2005, according to the Economist. "Over the years people have been crushed, hit on the head, welded and even had molten aluminium poured over them by robots," the paper said.
According to the U.S. Labor Department, "Studies indicate that many robot accidents occur during non-routine operating conditions, such as programming, maintenance, testing, setup, or adjustment."
"During many of these operations the worker may temporarily be within the robot's working envelope where unintended operations could result in injuries," according to the department's Web site.
According to German news reports, the contractor had been standing inside the safety cage when the accident occurred.
Goes again Issac Asimov's first "law of robotics" - A robot may not injure a human being or............. https://t.co/dyQ4p74ldM
— Omar Abdullah (@abdullah_omar) July 2, 2015
Please note this: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. (Asimov's law)
— Gene Luckman (@koreyome) July 1, 2015
Those tweets referred to a short story published by science fiction author Isaac Asimov in 1942 that described three laws that should restrain the actions of robots. The first law stated:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Despite its origins in science fiction literature, the law is discussed in academia. Most often, however, it has been associated with war robots developed to kill enemies, rather than car-manufacturing machines.