More than 1,000 of the leading researchers in artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics recently signed and published an open letter calling for a ban on offensive autonomous weapons, also known colloquially as “killer robots.”

The letter was signed by many technologists and experts, including SpaceX and Tesla CEO Elon Musk, physicist Stephen Hawking, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, Skype co-founder Jaan Talinn and linguist and activist Noam Chomsky.

Musk, Hawking and Wozniak have all warned about the dangers that AI poses to mankind.

The open letter urges the UN to support a ban on offensive autonomous weapons systems.

But while there has been much written and discussed about military robots of late, there has been little mention of the dangers posed by robots in the workplace.

Earlier this year a 22-year-old contractor was killed at a Volkswagen factory in Germany after a robot he was helping to set up grabbed and crushed him to death against a metal plate.

A VW spokesman later confirmed the worker had died at the plant at Baunatal, near Kassel, about 100km north of Frankfurt.

The man, who has not been named, was part of a team that was setting up the automated machinery at the factory.

Initial conclusions indicate that human error was to blame, rather than a problem with the robot.

But the German worker’s death is not an isolated case.

Robots have caused at least 26 workplace deaths in the US alone in the past 30 years, according to government data.

The first recorded robot-related death took place in 1971, at a Ford car production line in Michigan.

Robert Williams, an assembly line worker, was killed when a robot arm slammed into him as he was gathering parts in a storage facility.

There has been no known deaths attributed to robots in the Australian workplace – so far.

But although deaths caused by robots are highly unusual, the latest fatality should be a wake up call for local safety authorities.

With the rapid acceleration in automation technology it is time we addressed this important safety issue.

An expert in machine learning Professor Michael Osborne of the Oxford Martin School at Oxford University predicts almost half of all jobs in industrialised nations like Australia are at risk of redundancy over the next two decades with the rise of intelligent machines.

That equates to nearly five million jobs.

There is no doubt automation is the way of the future, but do we have adequate safety systems in place to protect our workers on the factory floor?

That is the question.


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