Isaac Asimov’s first of three Laws of Robotics is as follows:
A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Poor Isaac must be spinning in his grave this week over the news that a robot in Germany is painfully punching people while a robot in Sweden is waking humans up by slapping them across the face. Is this a bad sign? Do these robots have robotic lawyers assuring them that they can get away with this behavior?
A team of researchers in the Robotic Systems Business Unit at the Fraunhofer IFF Institute led by German scientist Roland Behrens invented the arm-punching robot. Behrens says their real intent is to teach robots how NOT to kill humans by testing how hard they can hit before a human dies, or at least flinches. By finding this point, robots can theoretically be made for assembly plants that do not have the force to cause fatal accidents.
The punching robot has a pendulum arm that hits volunteers on their arms at varying intensities. The subjects rate the pain on a 10-point scale and the researchers say they stop at five and check the volunteers for bruises, breaks or crying. The real question is: when would the robot stop on its own?
Meanwhile, Swedish inventor and robot developer Simone Giertz has created a robotic alarm clock with a life-size plastic arm that slaps the face of a sleeping person repeatedly until they smash the shut-off button. It’s a good bet there’s no snooze button on this alarm as the intensity and frequency of the slaps seem pretty high.
Giertz’s “Wake Up Machine” may seem like a novelty but so were the automobile, toaster and water cannon at one point and they can hurt you too. All it takes is the right price and a clever commercial and the “Wake Up Machine” will be under many Christmas trees.
They key word in discussing both of these robots is “pain.” By intentionally hitting humans and inflicting real pain, do they break Asimov’s First Law of Robotics? Are we too late? Is the robotic cat out of the no-harm bag?