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Killer robots: Is that really a thing?

Thursday - 6/19/2014, 3:39am  ET

Robot (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, file)
With robotics becoming integrated into modern life, should society worry about killer robots? (AP Photo/David Guttenfelder, file)

By Gregg Stebben, Men's Health

WASHINGTON -- I'm not making this headline up: "As robotics advances, worries of killer robots rise."

But what does the New York Times mean by "killer robots"? Do they mean robots that kill by accident? Or robots that kill on purpose?

It turns out that robots on the assembly line or factory floor have been causing about one accidental death a year in the U.S. for the past 30 years.

Today, robots are largely isolated from humans on the factory floor, until a human crosses a line or barrier. Not surprisingly, that's when accidents happen.

Going forward, however, we are likely to see more robots among us doing tasks that involve more and more artificial intelligence and direct human interaction.

This assimilation of robots into society will happen faster than we might imagine.

Look at how quickly the concept of driverless cars has evolved from science-fiction fantasy a few years ago to an accepted, even greatly anticipated reality for many of us, in the very near future. But a few major factors will determine how quickly we see robots (and driverless cars) among us.

One factor is the technology to make it happen. We can see lots of work being done here. The next factor is cost, which will drop dramatically over time. And the third factor will be lawyers and insurance companies.

Lawyers will be on the front line of fighting over who is liable when "killer robots" kill, and insurance companies will set premiums that determine who can afford to use robots. Of course, the proven safety record of robots will help determine those premiums, but accidents will happen because they are inevitable.

Meanwhile, there's still the issue of robots designed to kill on purpose. This is also inevitable, for war, defense, terrorism and criminal acts.

It's not hard to imagine that public debate over robotics will play out similar to the public debate today over issues such as gun rights and gun control, environmental and economic issues such as fracking -- even the battle over abortion.

Personally, I look forward to these debates over the advancement of robotics, because the clarity and intelligence of the other guy's viewpoint just might give us clues about whether we are debating a human or robotic opponent.

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