Robots Are Killing People. How Worried Should We Be?

By Libby Torres

The specter haunting Europe—and the rest of the world, for that matter—isn’t communism anymore, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels so famously wrote in their 1848 manifesto. It’s something far more insidious, and something that Marx and Engels could have hardly imagined: automation, which is to say, AI and robots in all their various iterations.

This slow introduction of artificial intelligence into human economies is the focus of director Maxim Pozdorovkin’s latest documentary, The Truth About Killer Robots, which premieres this Sunday on HBO. Pozdorovkin takes an unflinching look at the way automated cars, industrial-strength robots, and bomb-detecting autonomous devices have infiltrated human life—and the effects, good or bad, that have come along with them.

The documentary is narrated by a robotic “host” named Kodomoroid. Kodomoroid is disconcertingly humanlike, although her stiff movements and halting voice very quickly give her away as a robot. The decision to have an automaton narrate a documentary about killer robots seems a bit too on the nose, and at times lends the project a distracting, though no less engaging, Westworld-esque futurism.

Kodomoroid lays out the framework for the documentary, and introduces an anecdote involving a deceased worker at a Volkswagen factory in Germany—apparently the result of a “malfunctioning” robot. The details are pretty horrifying: after entering into a “cage” with a coworker where robots are allowed to move independently, a robot arm swung around and pinned the 21-year-old worker against a metal wall, crushing his chest and killing him. Volkswagen was, unsurprisingly, cagey about the incident, and an official investigation into the worker’s death remained open for several years after the fact, despite testimony from his coworker implicating the robot.

The accident at the Volkswagen factory introduces the central question that the documentary, somewhat unsuccessfully, seeks to answer: can robots be guilty of killing humans, however unintentional the death was? And how do we hold them accountable if so? Quite a lot of the doc is spent speaking to experts, both legal and philosophical, about the implications of robot interference in human life—and no clear answer is reached.

The documentary is more engaging when it examines the effects of robots and automated labor on the workforce and world economies. The introduction of automatons into factory jobs has lead to the displacement of hundreds of workers, and has forced surviving workers to work harder, longer, and more intricate jobs. Christoph Walter, a robotics engineer in Freiburg, Germany, doesn’t see automated labor as an issue, though. When interviewed in the documentary, he explains, “We don’t want to replace a worker [with a robot]. We want to support workers.”

It’s a nice sentiment that would likely cause Marx to turn in his grave, but regardless of intentions, the introduction of automated labor is bound to change the landscape of industry in some way. In one instance, a Chinese tech executive brought in robots when facing a labor shortage, curtailing his total number of employees and completely changing the way automated labor can be utilized. Although in this situation there was simply a dearth of available workers, what would stop higher-ups from replacing factory workers who, say, went on strike, with robots? The ramifications, as the documentary is right to imply, are huge.

Killer Robots also explores the ways in which automatons can affect other sectors, notably the service and law enforcement spheres. Self-driving cars, manufactured by the likes of Tesla, seem to be the vehicles of the future; as the documentary explains, however, they’re not without their flaws. A particularly grisly accident involving a man in a self-driving Tesla serves as a cautionary tale for those who think that automated vehicles are invincible: the Tesla, with the man inside, hit a semitruck head-on while going 74 miles per hour. His car barreled under the truck, ran through two fences, and eventually stopped when it struck a pole. The driver died from “massive craniocerebral blunt trauma with facial and scalp lacerations” and “avulsion of brain and upper brain stem.”

The central question dogging the documentary, and many of our conceptions of automatons and AI (think: Westworld) is, of course, related to robots’ morality. Isaac Asimov, the famous author and biochemist, laid out The Three Laws of Robotics in 1942. First, he said, robots shouldn’t be allowed to harm humans in any way. Second, robots must be programmed to obey commands from humans, unless they directly conflict with the first rule. And third, a robot must be allowed to protect itself, assuming that doesn’t conflict with the first or second rules.

Asimov, of course, couldn’t have imagined the sheer scope of artificial intelligence and automated labor that exists today. His questions, however moralistic, are worth examining, as Killer Robots seems to suggest, especially in the context of situations like police robotics, where automatons are used to kill or apprehend suspected criminals, as well as retrieve bombs and protect citizens.

But as Killer Robots suggests, it’s next to impossible to try and prevent the misuse of robots. As long as they’re made by humans, and therefore not as smart as humans, it’s reasonable to expect there will be some hurdles to cross—some much bigger than others.