How Hard Can a Robot Hit You Before It Becomes Illegal?

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This is a question that is already becoming relevant as robots enter the workforce in larger numbers. And the answers proposed by standards bodies are about as strange as it gets.

Over at Technology Review, Tom Simonite reports on a discussion at last week's Robot Industry Association conference about new rules for robot safety proposed by the International Standards Organization. Simonite notes that a lot of robot industry companies worry that new standards — coupled with guidelines from groups like U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration — are unrealistic and don't reflect how robots are actually used in the workplace.

He writes:

The ISO's update will, for instance, include guidance on the maximum force with which a robot may strike a human it is working with. Those limits will be based on research under way at the German Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. One part of that work involves using a machine to touch human volunteers with gradually increasing force to determine the pressure needed to cause the sensation of pain in 29 different regions of the body.

Björn Matthias, a member of the group drawing up the addition to the ISO standard, argued at the meeting that robots should be permitted to hurt humans sometimes. "Contact between human and robot is going to be infrequent and not part of normal intended use," he said. "I would say that you can tolerate being above the pain sensation threshold." The Swiss energy and automation company ABB, where Matthias works as a researcher, is set to release its first collaborative robot in 2015.

If a robot caused "a bruise a day," that would clearly be intolerable, said Matthias. But it would be acceptable if a worker received a "substantially painful" blow in the case of an accident. He and others argue that more restrictive guidelines would unnecessarily increase the compliance burden on companies that want to employ collaborative robots and limit the usefulness of their ability to work with humans.


The more you think about how to phrase these standards, the stranger things get. One possibly fatal blow isn't as bad as a bruise per day? It seems nuts, but at the same time, there's a definite logic at work. It's similar, in some ways, to how we evaluate car safety. The fact is that car accidents can always kill you, and people who live in societies with cars have to accept that risk. But we wouldn't accept a car that injured us a little bit every day.

Plus, we have to wonder whether these safety requirements going to make it impossible for robots to do their jobs. Read more over at Technology Review.