Prodomax Flex-N-Gate FANUC Nacho

“In July 2015, Wanda Holbrook, a maintenance technician performing routine duties on an assembly line at Ventra Ionia Main, an auto-parts maker in Ionia, Michigan, was “trapped by robotic machinery” and crushed to death. On March 7, her husband, William Holbrook, filed a wrongful death complaint  in Michigan federal court, naming five North American robotics companies involved in engineering and integrating the machines and parts used at the plant: Prodomax, Flex-N-Gate, FANUC, Nachi, and Lincoln Electric.”

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“Holbrook’s job involved keeping robots in working order. She routinely inspected and adjusted processes on the assembly line at Ventra, which makes bumpers and trailer hitches. One day, Holbrook was performing her regular duties when a machine acted very irregularly, according to the lawsuit reported in Courthouse News.

 “Holbrook was in the plant’s six-cell “100 section” when a robot unexpectedly activated, taking her by surprise. The cells are separated by safety doors and the robot should not have been able to move. But it somehow reached Holbrook, and was intent on loading a trailer-hitch assembly part right where she stood over a similar part in another cell.

The machine loaded the hardware onto Holbrook’s head. She was unable to escape, and her skull was crushed. Co-workers who eventually noticed that something seemed amiss found Holbrook dead.

“The robot from section 130 should have never entered section 140, and should have never attempted to load a hitch assembly within a fixture that was already loaded with a hitch assembly. A failure of one or more of defendants’ safety systems or devices had taken place…”

Text: A rogue robot is blamed for a human colleague’s gruesome death, Quartz.

Pic: Chris Foss, cover painting for the Panther Edition of John Sladek’s The Reproductive System, 1968.

All is full of love

“Modern concepts of the uncanny can be traced back to two major essays: Wilhelm Jentsch’s, ‘On the Psychology of the Uncanny’ (1906), and Freud’s ‘The Uncanny’ (1919). 1919 also saw the release of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Rutherford’s discovery of the proton, the first episode of the constantly re-animated ‘Itchy and Scratchy’(according to the internal history of ‘The Simpsons’) and the Theremin invented by its namesake, making it a good year all round. The ‘uncanny’ derives from the German unheimlich, loosely seen as meaning ‘un homely’. There are many readings and interpretations of the term, but many centre upon the concept of the animation of apparently inanimate objects, and can be applied to technologies including the animated image, the dislocated and disembodied voice when using a mobile phone, and the ‘uncanny valley’ of cybernetic automata.

“However, a base characteristic of the uncanny as argued by both Freud and Jentsch is that it occurs when animate and inanimate objects become confused, when objects behave in a way which imitate life, and thus blur the cultural, psychological and material boundaries between life and death, leading to what Jentsch called ‘Intellectual Uncertainty’- that things appear not to be what they are, and as such our reasoning may need re-structuring to make sense of the phenomenon.

“The simplest and most universal example of this is the reanimation of the dead; ghosts, zombies, poltergeist activity and communication from the ‘other side’ all form part of the psychology of the relationship that the living have towards the dead, and towards their own death. A corpse creates feelings of the uncanny as it is life-like (for it was once alive), and reminds the viewer of his or her own approaching death, the animate imagining the inanimate, and the possibility that the inanimate could be animated again.”

Technology and The Uncanny

You look smashing in that dress

“In 1816, the German Romantic fabulist ETA Hoffmann published his unsettling short story “The Sandman”, in which a moody university student falls in love with and passionately woos a pretty but uncommonly reserved young woman, only to lose his mind and leap to his death when he discovers that she is in fact a cunningly built automaton.

“A century later, when Sigmund Freud wrote his essay on “The Uncanny”, tracing the various ways that corpses, ghosts, coincidences, and other things ambiguously suspended between one order of being and another can provoke unease and alarm, it was no accident that out of all the literary examples he could have chosen from, Freud picked Hoffmann’s “Sandman” for his Exhibit A. It was as true then as it is now: nothing says “creepiness defined” like the prospect of human intimacy with robots.

“This is apparently news to David Levy. Or if it isn’t, don’t look for the evidence in his oddly – very oddly – fascinating new book, Love and Sex With Robots. Levy’s thesis (and it’s precisely that: at the age of 61, after decades as a successful, self-taught expert on computer chess, he submitted this book by way of a dissertation to the University of Maastricht’s computer science department and came away with a PhD) is as straightforward as it is brazen.

“By the year 2050, Levy claims, social attitudes and robotic technologies will have evolved to the point that “humans will fall in love with robots, humans will marry robots, and humans will have sex with robots, all as (what will be regarded as) ‘normal’ extensions of our feelings of love and sexual desire for other humans”.

Want to do the Turing test in bed?