Punching Robot Totally Breaks Asimov's First Rule

By Jennifer Welsh | October 14, 2010 4:19 pm

robopuncherHow much harm would a robot cause, if a robot could cause harm?

Ok, admittedly that’s not as good of a tongue twister as the woodchuck chucking wood, but it’s a legitimate question being posed by researchers in Slovenia. In Slovenia, where electronic gadgets smack you.

Borut Povše at the University of Ljubljana has been testing the punching ability of an industrial-strength robot, inflicting everything from mild to unbearable pain on six of his colleagues and measuring how much they said it hurt. Povše told New Scientist’s Paul Marks that robots need to learn their limits to safely work side by side with humans:

“Even robots designed to Asimov’s laws can collide with people. We are trying to make sure that when they do, the collision is not too powerful,” Povše says. “We are taking the first steps to defining the limits of the speed and acceleration of robots, and the ideal size and shape of the tools they use, so they can safely interact with humans.”

And while robots inflicting pain on a human is a the number one no-no on Isaac Asimov’s list (if you happen to believe those rules), the robots must first learn what hurts before they can be programmed to not bring harm to (or allow others to harm) their human overlords, researcher Sami Haddadin told New Scientist:

“Determining the limits of pain during robot-human impacts this way will allow the design of robot motions that cannot exceed these limits,” says Sami Haddadin of DLR, the German Aerospace Centre in Wessling, who also works on human-robot safety. Such work is crucial, he says, if robots are ever to work closely with people. Earlier this year, in a nerve-jangling demonstration, Haddadin put his own arm on the line to show how smart sensors could enable a knife-wielding kitchen robot to stop short of cutting him.

The punching robot apparently performed its tasks admirably, but there’s no word on whether it enjoyed this job more than its previous line of work: assembling coffee vending machines.

Related content:
Discoblog: Why a Punch Hurts More If Your Attacker Really Meant It
Cosmic Variance: Who to Treat Best – Your Robot or Your Wife?
DISCOVER: The Robot Invasion Is Coming—and That’s a Good Thing
DISCOVER: The Rise of the Machines Is Not Going as We Expected
DISCOVER: Want to Learn Biology? Have Someone Punch You in the Face.

Image: B. Povše, et. al, at the IEEE’s Systems, Man and Cybernetics conference

  • http://Untitledvanityproject.blogspot.com Rhacodactylus

    I always wonder if the Germans are aware of the stereotypes when they’re make a knife wielding punching robot =)

    Quick question, is there a version of this in place during research on robotic telesurgeries? It would seem that, if a surgeon were to move oddly that a robot arm would be capable of inflicting much more damage than a similar slip by a human hand.

    ~Rhaco

  • Old Rockin’ Dave

    So-called robotic surgery does not really involve a robot, but is, as you say, telesurgery. In effect the surgical “robot” is really a sort of waldo.
    Having assisted in the OR a few times, I can attest that a slip by a human hand could be quite devastating (although I never saw a significant slip).
    I have not witnessed “robotic” (it really isn’t a robot) surgery, but looking at photos of the units, it does not appear to me that the arms have as much scope to move as a human arm does. Such surgery is done in a very small field which is often closed, as in laparoscopic surgery. I would expect that movement on the part of the surgeon is reduced and somewhat damped to avoid exactly that kind of problem.
    I can’t say for sure, since my surgical knowledge is far from current, but that would be my educated guess.

  • ChH

    Asimov’s 3 laws were made to be broken.

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