Mankind has been fascinated by the idea of building something in our own image for centuries. Technology is only just catching up with our dreams these days and humanoid robots are slowly but surely becoming a reality. The kind of reality that pop culture assures us will kill us all. And it’s easy to laugh and say “this is how Skynet started” when we see artificial intelligence and robots, but the fact is robots have been killing us for a while now. Often unintentionally, but not always.
10. Ford’s Robot Arm
Real, practical robots are few and far between in our everyday lives. The most common and recognizable ones are robot arms. They’re ubiquitous in factories and they date all the way back to 1954 when the first robot arm was patented. They perform repetitive tasks with a computer-programmed accuracy, doing jobs that are monotonous and even to help mitigate accidents. The idea was that a robot could more safely do dangerous tasks that would allow humans to focus on less dangerous ones.
Despite the intention being less injury, the road to hell is paved with good intentions that were constructed by robotic arms. The first time a human life was lost at the hands of a robot, almost literally in this case, was in 1979 at a Ford factory.
Factory worker Robert Williams was asked to do a manual count of parts because a robot was giving inaccurate counts. He had to climb a five-story shelving unit to count all the parts and while he was there, a second robot that no one had disabled continued to do its job, which included taking parts off of those shelves. It reached in and hit Williams in the head. Reports say he died instantly, but no one realized it even happened for at least half an hour.
9. The Japanese AI Conspiracy
This entry comes with a very large grain of salt. The story is about how military robots killed 29 scientists at a facility in Japan. Sounds terrifying, right? Well, don’t lock your doors just yet. There is a questionable layer to this tale which needs to be addressed as well. Namely, it seems like maybe this never actually happened.
The conspiracy states that there were four autonomous military robots. Two were deactivated, the third was taken apart. But the fourth one? Well, according to award-winning journalist Linda Moulton Howe, it connected to a satellite network and taught itself how to build itself even stronger than it had been originally designed.
It should be noted that Howe, despite being a prominent name in journalism in the 70s and 80s, is more known for her belief in UFOs these days.
Snopes says the story has no veracity at all, but Howe insists that a contact at the CIA confirmed it for her. The story exploded after Howe gave a talk. The video has been viewed over eight million times and gave rise to a meme. So even if the real event never occurred, a lot of people likely think it did.
8. The Ventra Ionia Arm
The Ventra Ionia factory welds and stamps truck bumpers. The employees work alongside robots to get this job done, the same as in many auto manufacturing facilities around the world. Any of these facilities has to be set up and operated in a safe and efficient way. In order to avoid accidents, humans need to stay in human-safe areas away from where the robots operate. These are not artificial intelligences, after all. They do what they’re programmed to do, so if a person gets in the way, the robots have no way to know.
Back in 2015, Wanda Holbrook was exactly where she was supposed to be in the factory. This was not a case of a human ignoring safety protocols and taking a risk at all. She was working in her own section and being responsible. She had no way to predict that a robot arm was going to enter her work space where it was not programmed to be.
The arm hit Holbrook on the head and killed her. It was reported that other employees had noted that day that something was wrong. The robot that killed Wanda was trying to perform a task that had already been performed in a place it was not meant to be performed.
Holbrook’s husband filed a wrongful death lawsuit against five robotics companies. The death happened in 2015; the lawsuit was filed in 2017, and the trial ended in 2021 when a settlement was reached.
7. Volkswagen Germany Plant
Oftentimes when a robot causes the death of someone in a factory, it’s the result of a human error. The robot was doing what it was supposed to do and somehow a person got in the mix. Usually, that means some kind of safety measure went awry. But for a contractor in Germany back in 2015, things were a little harder to explain.
A 22-year-old man died while a robot was being installed. It wasn’t as though someone wandered into the area without following safety protocols. The worker was actually there to work on the robot itself, which is what made the situation so hard to explain. It should not have been functioning but, because the man was inside the unsafe zone around the robot, when it did activate he was in a bad spot. The arm crushed the man against a metal plate and then he died later as a result of his injuries.
6. The Kawasaki Robot Arm
Though a robot arm had caused a fatality in America in ‘79, the first accident to compare to it in Japan happened just two years later, in 1981.
Kenji Urada was working at a Kawasaki plant when a robot he was working near malfunctioned in some way. Urada broke safety protocols and entered an area where humans were not supposed to be in an effort to repair it. Urada was supposed to enter the proper way by opening a gate that would then shut off power. For whatever reason, he jumped over the gate instead of opening it. The result was that the power stayed on.
Urada accidentally hit the power button as he attempted to fix the arm. It powered on and crushed his body against a wall. By the time he was able to be extricated, it was too late.
5. Robot Suicide
Suicide is a serious and devastating issue that claims over 700,000 lives per year. It’s important to recognize the signs of people who need help if and when we can, just like it’s important to know that help is available when you need it.
Sadly, 81-year-old Francis Pete Tovey of Australia was not able to find the help he needed back in 2008. Instead, the man set about conducting some research on the internet that allowed him to create a robot suicide machine.
Tovey set up his machine in the driveway of his home, feeling that if it succeeded, some nearby construction workers would be able to find his body. He gave no reason for why he did what he did and his neighbors said he seemed like a nice and friendly guy.
The robot was a simple mechanism that was armed with a .22 caliber gun and four bullets. It shot him three times in the head.
4. SGR-A1 Sentries
A hot button issue these days, and we’ll cover this again shortly, is the ethics behind autonomous killing machines. Is there ever a time when we can fully trust a robot to decide when and if it’s okay to take a human life? Who gets to program a robot to do these things and what are the parameters? There are a lot of questions at play with a lot of very scary ramifications. And these questions need answers because autonomous killing machines do exist today, and they’ve been at work for a few years now.
While you won’t see a killing robot down at the local Taco Bell, if you head to the DMZ between North and South Korea, you’ll find SGR-A1 sentry robots. Over 200 incursions have been attempted through this area despite the fact it’s heavily guarded on both sides. And that’s why the robot sentries were introduced.
The machines are loaded with 1,000 rounds of ammo, a grenade launcher, thermal cameras, laser rangefinders, voice recognition and more to keep track of everyone who may approach and eliminate those that don’t belong. So how many robots are there and have they actually killed anyone? Well, no one knows because that’s classified. But they’ve been in place for over a decade now.
3. The Dallas Bomb Robot
Bomb disposal robots are not unheard of and probably most people have seen one if not on the news than in movies. They’re been in use since the 1970s. They’re actually fairly simple machines that are remotely controlled and designed to allow law enforcement access to a dangerous area without risking loss of life. As the name suggests, these get sent in to trigger or dismantle bombs. So technically, these things are meant to save lives. Technically.
In 2016, the police department in Dallas somewhat repurposed their bomb robot. A sniper had started taking out police officers and five were already dead while seven more were injured. Police rigged their bomb disposal robot with a bomb and sent it into the room where the shooter was taking cover after negotiations broke down. The explosion went off, and the suspect was killed immediately. It was the first time in history that the police had used a robot to intentionally kill someone.
2. The Self-Driving Uber
Twenty years ago the idea of robots actually influencing our lives was a lot more fictitious than it is today. We’d still joke about the Terminator or the Matrix becoming real “one day.” But today, robots that have a direct and real impact on our everyday lives are real and they’re out among us all the time, even if they don’t look like giant, metal squids or skeletons. Take, for instance, the self-driving car. They’ve already caused human fatalities.
Elaine Herzeberg was riding her bike in 2018 when an Uber ran into her at 39 miles per hour. There was a human in the car at the time but they were watching an episode of The Voice on their phone. The driving was being done by the car’s AI.
Self-driving cars are intended to have a real, human backup behind the wheel in case something goes wrong. But if the driver is watching TV and not paying attention, they’re obviously not very helpful.
The driver was charged with negligent homicide because a human is supposed to be the safety net behind a self-driving car. The trial has been delayed several times due to Covid, however, so there’s no word yet on whether human or machine will ultimately be held responsible.
1. The AI Machine Gun
Robots killing humans by accident are terrifying. Robots designed explicitly to kill humans are a dystopian nightmare. The AI machine gun is about as simple, brutal and horrifying as any robot could possibly be.
In 2020, an Iranian nuclear scientist was shot to death near Tehran. General Ali Fadavi, the second highest ranking official in Iran’s Islam Revolutionary Guard Corps said the weapon that killed the scientist fired with such pinpoint accuracy that it was able to take him out but not hit his wife sitting right next to him. It’s worth noting that this claim was not verified elsewhere. So what actually happened?
The official word that we have now is that Israel assassinated the scientist, known as the “Father of the Iranian Bomb” with the backing of the United States. A satellite-controlled AI machine used facial recognition to target the scientist and take him out from the back of a pickup truck that later exploded. The attack lasted just three minutes.