Death by Robots and Ubers: Artificial Intelligence, Autonomous Systems, and Risk

Jo Ann Oravec, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Manufacturing- and transportation-related deaths and injuries are, unfortunately, often among the grim effects of production and mobility. They have not ceased to be a factor in these realms despite decades of efforts on safety and risk management. Deaths that are associated with robots are often placed in different lights than other sorts of incidents, with themes of murder and malice introduced in popular discourse on these events. This paper explores the history of how deaths and injuries by robots and autonomous systems have been distinguished from other kinds of incidents; it examines the implications of these assignments for how the incidents are handled in terms of risk assessment, as well as for discourse on the nature of work itself. As the kinds and numbers of robots and autonomous systems (including vehicles) increases, variations in narrative themes associated with these deaths are developing. The paper analyzes how “death by robot” accounts are employed in efforts to characterize workplace and infrastructure automation for political and social purposes. On January 25, 1979, Robert Williams reportedly died as a result of interaction with a robot. Other deaths have followed with connections to robots and autonomous systems, with a variety of reactions and analyses (Lyons, 2018; Oravec, 2018). Deaths that involve a component of autonomous, machine-originated action have broad implications for the insurance and other risk-related industries as well as for workers and families involved. This paper provides case studies of an assortment of these unfortunate incidents. References: Lyons, S. (2018). Death and the machine: Intersections of mortality and robotics. Springer. Oravec, J.A. (2014). Expert systems and knowledge-based engineering (1984-1991): Implications for instructional systems research. International Journal of Designs for Learning, 5(2). Oravec, J.A. (2018). Artificial intelligence, automation, and social welfare: Some ethical and historical perspectives on technological overstatement and hyperbole. Ethics and Social Welfare.

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 Presented in Session 192. Disability and Risk in the Workplace