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An artist built a robot that stabs humans just to make a point

the first law
Isaac Asimov’s First Law of Robotics states that a robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Roboticist and artist Alexander Reben wants to change all that. He’s created a robot which — far from pampering us the way a good robot servant should — senses approaching humans and strikes out to attack them.

Technologically, the bot is fairly straightforward: comprising a robot arm with a lancet (needle) at the end, sensors to let it know whether a body part has entered its sensing space, and simple programming that makes an unpredictable choice as to whether or not it should lash out.

“It was kept simple intentionally, as one of the ideas with the work is that you don’t need an advanced AI or complicated system to start encountering interesting philosophical and ethical issues,” Reben tells Digital Trends.

Of course, the First Law robot isn’t really “breaking” Asimov’s rule since it’s never been taught what that rule actually is. Reben’s creation isn’t trying to hurt its creator any more than Apple Maps was trying to hurt iPhone users when, a few years ago, it recommended that iPhone owners dangerously cross over the taxiway — where planes were taking off and landing — in order to reach Fairbanks International Airport.

Instead, the thing that makes Reben’s robot interesting is what it says about how our future trust in robots will play out depending on what they’re asked to do. It’s no coincidence that his current robot builds on the same core technology that previously allowed him to build a prototype robotic headscratcher called the “headgasmatron.” As Reben points out, with only slight modifications it’s possible to flip people’s trust in robots from an unquestioning intimate relationship to one based on fear.

robot arm with wire head scratcher, test 1

“People don’t realize how much of a visceral reaction like that a robot can give you,” he says. “The anticipation, fear and hesitation are really strong; one person told me the last time they were that anxious and nervous is when they were on a plane about to jump out and skydive for the first time.”

Note to self: treat your smart gadgets nicely. After all, you never know when they’re going to have a bad day and turn on you!

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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