Why Did the Robot Cross the Road?

No, it’s not the opening line of a joke. Or, if it is, the joke is in poor taste, and the person telling it will find himself asking, “too soon?” About a month ago, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a Tesla Model-S self-driving car ran over and “killed” a robot that was walking to its job at the show.

Think about that…

Are you more disturbed by the incident, the fact that they used the word “killed,” or the fact that we are now reading stories about one autonomous thing colliding with some other autonomous thing?

I, and perhaps some of you formed thoughts about robots and autonomous things beginning in the 60s, when they started to be featured in TV shows as handy things people would someday have. Of course, I’m talking about Rosie, the robot maid on the Jetsons and Robot on Lost In Space. If you’re thinking, “what a slacker, he couldn’t even google the name” – that was the name of the Class M-3 Model B-9 General Utility Non-Theorizing Environmental Control Robot famous for saying “Danger, Will Robinson!” Aren’t you glad they didn’t use an acronym.

I’m a little disturbed by the fact that we have to read stories like this. Not because the robots didn’t end up like Rosie, not because the robot that was destroyed is/was cute, but because of what it says about control. I’m not sure there was much control in place. The story says that the police came to investigate but that no charges had been filed at the time of the story. Who would you charge? With what crime? The robot, a Promobot, rents for $2,000 a day. According to the news story:

“Of course we are vexed,” said Oleg Kivokurtsev, Promobot’s development director. “We brought this robot here from Philadelphia to participate at CES. Now it neither cannot participate in the event or be recovered.”

Apparently, their grammar-bot is every bit as effective as the Promobot. I’m sorry, too soon?

If you’re thinking “that’s interesting, Dan but I don’t have any plans to buy a robot or a self-driving car,” you might still have reasons to be worried. Consider the following headline from a story on the travel news website Boarding Area:

ANA Boeing 787 dual engine shutdown upon landing

All Nippon Airways is currently investigating an incident that occurred on the 17th of January that saw both engines of one of their Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners shutdown simultaneously.”

The good news, the engines shut down after landing. The bad news, they shut down before the thrust reversers had been deployed to slow the plane. “The crew let the aircraft roll until it came to a standstill 2450 meters (8030 feet) down the runway.” Which is great, but if they had landed at Laguardia, the last 3,030 feet of that process would have been in Flushing Bay.

That long runway is only about 5,000 feet.

The article goes on to say:

“It’s worth noting that a bulletin was released by Boeing not so long ago to pilots and maintenance crews about the Thrust Control Malfunction Accommodation (TCMA) system, which prevents risk in an uncommanded high-thrust situation, stating that errors in the landing sequence could cause the system to activate.”

Again, does anyone else find it disturbing that our travel lexicon includes a reference to a “Thrust Control Malfunction Accommodation (TCMA) system?” I was hoping that ‘thrust control’ would be the responsibility of a well-trained pilot. I would hope that a ‘thrust control malfunction’ might be reported to a maintenance person and repaired before the plane ever flew again, instead of being accommodated by a system.

PS, you don’t need to own the robot or the car to be involve in an accident. Last March, a self-driving car being tested by Uber Technologies Inc. struck and killed a pedestrian in Arizona. In this case:

“The NTSB said the Uber vehicle’s sensors detected the pedestrian walking across the road with a bicycle six seconds before impact. At first, the self-driving system’s software classified the pedestrian as an unknown object, then as a vehicle and finally as a bicycle with varying expectations of where the bike was headed.”

However, the vehicle wasn’t programmed to stop for obstructions in its path and the human ‘safety operator’ didn’t apply the brakes. Yes, yes, also according to the NTSB, “the pedestrian had drugs in her system and didn’t look for traffic” and the investigation continues.

Whether or not any of this causes you to worry, you should know that “Robots will be ready when the next recession hits.” A recent article in the Washington Post talks about how technology advances that are often slow to be adopted, get a boost during a recession. I just hope Wal*Mart doesn’t start arming the robot security guards.


  1. And here I thought I was the only one concerned, i mean didn’t anyone see the Terminator movies?.My favorite episode in the last season of The X-Files was about this very thing. Increased dependence on automated systems and the havoc that was wreaked because Mulder didn’t leave a tip for the robots at the automated sushi restaurant. The scariest part was Scully locked in a self driving Uber styel vehicle and it racing her hime manically (maniacally).
    Cute squirrels. Our rhodedendron has nice buds, just waiting… and the cameila is covered. 👏🏻

    Liked by 4 people

  2. This post comes on the heels of me having just rewatched the Matrix trilogy over the weekend …. aka Machines Evil.
    However robots and pervasive technology are more likely going to make me think of Wall-E and how the human race is going to become a fat, dumbed-down non-thinking ‘vegetable’ species. Already the signs of our dumbing-down are everywhere ….

    Liked by 1 person

  3. At times when you write such posts it makes me believe that some countries are in living in 22nd Century while some countries are still in the 15th Century.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not going to bet against you on that one. People keep saying that this will all make our lives easier and better, but I’m not convinced. We still don’t get the whole “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should” with respect to automation. Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My latest pet peeve? People who whine constantly about being hacked, yet happily turn over their entire homes to a computer. Alexa? Nest? I love tech as much as the next person but seriously… I don’t need my refrigerator to tell me I’m out of milk.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I share this pet peeve, and I have the additional worry about our employees being hacked or opening the door so the rest of us can be. I won’t be inviting Alexa in, but I’m sure she’d join Maddie, MuMu and MiMi in hearing me, but not really listening – “I’m sorry, you have enough beer, Dan, I’m not placing that order.”

          Liked by 1 person

  4. It detected the human being crossing the road 6 seconds before impact. 6 seconds. That is worrying.
    It classified the human being as an “unknown object”. That is worse.
    Well, as much as people make mistakes, are sometimes moody, crazy, and/or murderous, I still like to see a human being in charge. People can be held accountable. Robots can’t. As you say, “Who would you charge? With what crime?” Exactly!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Peter! I think you’re pretty much on target with your assessment. If you ever have a chance to see the original Outer Limits episode “I Robot,” you might like it. They put a robot on trial, but it’s the humans than get it wrong.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A lot of this AI scares me to death, partly because I don’t fully understand it. The situation where the Über struck and killed a pedestrian is frightening. So now we have to not only worry about the ‘other’ drivers, we have to worry about the self-driving vehicles and whether or not they’ve been properly and thoroughly programmed.

    Maybe more time needs to be spent on the “what if?” and not just on creating these machines simply because we can. I’m with rivergirl1211 ….. this will bite us in the *ss one day.

    The squirrels look well fed….very well fed! I cracked up seeing the pile of peanut shells Smokey and the gang have amassed. These guys sure don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, or whether there will be a next meal! Lol.

    Maddie and MiMi certainly look relaxed and toasty warm, but I’m guessing MuMu was on a mission to find you and her brush!

    🐾Ginger 🐾

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Ginger. The squirrels are well fed, but they are also storing stuff somewhere. We didn’t see them at all during the recent bitter cold snap, and they weren’t out during the snow storm. One sad thing was when my wife watched one little guy burying a peanut in the snow. “Just eat it!”

      Thinking ahead on all these technical issues seems critical to me, but I worry that some companies are working on a “close enough is OK” basis. It might be in some cases, but not when humans are involved. It’s the airliner issue that scares me the most. We long had planes that pilots can’t really control without the help of machines, but when machines can decide to shut down the engines and the pilots can’t override that decision – well, that gets my attention.

      MuMu made it into the room with the stove, but not until Maddie was safely in her crate. We wish they got along better, but Maddie remains pretty unpredictable when it comes to her actions. Weird things set her off (like the phone ringing).

      I think in the spring, I might have to volunteer to rake a bit of my neighbors yard.


  6. I used to produce all the OSHA logs for our clients. Enter new computer system taking all the guesswork out of everything. Supervisor takes over the task cause, you know…..supervisor. Well, how’s that new computer system working for you? Finally got them all out 1/31/19 with not a second to spare. Computer and robots…..bah! Smokey, even with crumbs, is one handsome guy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s a familiar story, Lois. It’s also one I think we’re going to hear more often. Smokey is so cute. In the past, he would never sit still long enough for a picture. He’s still more skittish than the gray squirrels, but he like those peanuts.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I’d be grateful if they kept robot cars away from me. The instant I read that the robot car hit the robot being, I worried about actual people getting hit by the car. It appears my instant concern is valid. I would prefer if robots clean the house and make dinner. That would be more helpful.

    LOL on the grammar bot. I know a few people who could use one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really worry about people on bikes being recognized as A) Human and B) vehicles (as they are legally defined to be in most states). CT law says that you are supposed to consider a person on a bike as a vehicle and you are not supposed to pass until you can give them 3 feet of clearance. Most people don’t know this, or don’t seem to care, but self-driving cars need to be aware that these bikes carry people and what the applicable law is.

      I’d like a squirrel feeding/MuMu brushing robot.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I can’t stand the world’s mentality of “if it’s new, we MUST have it. If we can do it, we MUST do it.” Technology is wonderful and certainly has a place. But just because we have the ability to integrate technology into EVERYTHING doesn’t mean we should. In my opinion, computers, robots, things that are programmed to take the place of human eyes, ears and hands have no place on our roads, and WE have no business cultivating an era of reliance on such things. I don’t want a computer controlling the brakes in my car. I don’t want to have to spend $120 per hour to take my car to the garage because my brakes failed while I was driving down the road, only to be told, “I don’t know what to tell you, there’s nothing wrong with your car. The computer must have glitched.” Well, isn’t THAT comforting? Too much technology is a bad thing, period. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do it.

    What’s scarier than the robots is the people behind them with their “big ideas”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I imagined that this might be your reaction, Wendy. I can’t say as I disagree. I’m all for technology but I think, in the interest of “we want this company in our city” and other misguided thinking, we are ignoring ethical, social and safety issues in a lot of areas. The problem is, we don’t find out, until we do.


  9. There is the thing called the ‘learning curve’ and the thing called the ‘programming curve’. More accurately known as the ‘programming development cycle’. Both of them involve a concept of ‘small steps’ or learning to walk before you run. Both of them involve moments best described as ‘look out – slow down’ and ‘geeze I will never do that again’. The difference between real life and AI is in real life we immediately apply the rule. In AI the eventually response is “Really !! That could never happen. Can you reproduce the situation ? Oh wow that does happen ! We will send this to the development team right away. And they will schedule work on it right after they reprioritize it with all of the other Oh wows that could never happen. And then there is the problem of ” if we don’t field test this now it we will never get this off the ground.” Of course this is accompanied by the lack of foresight that field testing it might immediately lead to lots of little pieces scattered all over the ground. And that is why AI also stands for automated ignorance and accidents included. Now you will excuse me if I have one more cup of coffee and skip ahead to Saturday. PS – there are so many places where rapid deployment cycle rhyme with depraved indifference.


  10. What concerns me most is that 6-second time lag in the Uber incident. 6 seconds is a long time, especially for a computer that’s supposed to be in control. In 6 seconds, it couldn’t recognize the pedestrian as something that it was about to run over? It couldn’t differentiate between a pedestrian, a bicycle, a vehicle, or a rock in the road?

    However, 6 seconds to a pedestrian (drugged, drunk, or not) is barely enough time to see the vehicle coming and to think, “Oh, sh** ).

    Not acceptable. I don’t think I want to trust my life to a computer just yet.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Your squirrels REALLY earn their peanuts! Buncha model squirrels, Dan! I am very fond of the one with peanuts in his fur. He is my totem animal, certainly.
    Melted MiMi is tooo cuuuute! Great caption!
    As for the robot, there is no wrongful death claim. There is the destruction of property. And for property, there must be insurance. I feel confident that the Tesla is well-insured.
    Having had to talk to robots several times today, “I don’t have it” and “I don’t know it” I can safely say I wouldn’t mind s’more dead property, okay? Give me a human, faulty as we are, we TRY.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ha ha! I guess I’ll stop development of the No Facilities CommentBot.

      The dead robot isn’t an easy case. Whereas a human pedestrian may have the right-of-way, the time don’t know why the Promobot stepped into the road. I wouldn’t want to be on that jury. I’m sure they’ll all just shake and go on their way.

      Smokey might just be the cutest squirrel ever. We’re so happy that he has started coming over with the others. He’s still skittish, but no longer scared.

      MiMi is the cutest cat in our place. She says thanks and hoped you have a great Tuesday!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. My first memory of a robot is from Lost In Space when the robot would panic, flay his arms, and shout: “Danger Will Robinson, danger.” From this I got the impression that robots were nervous nellies. Granted Data in StarTrek showed me a different sort of robot, but those early memories stick in my brain, making me disinclined to wholeheartedly trust any robot. Just saying…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would not urge anyone to increase the level of trust they place in any robot, including the customer service robots that answer the phone and participate in on-line chats at your bank, credit card company, hospital, hotel and most airlines.

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Yep, this is scary. It makes me want to eat pancakes and watch the squirrels. I’m mildly curious about how technology advances that are often slow to be adopted, get a boost during a recession.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. “Of course we are vexed.” OH MY GOSH, I CAN’T STOP LAUGHING OVER THIS QUOTE. Sorry, Dan, there’s so much to consider in this thoughtful piece on where technology has taken/is taking us and all I can do is sit here giggling over VEXED.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Ha! I might be late, but I’m glad I didn’t miss this party, Dan. I was already thinking “acronym” regarding Robot’s name, as I was reading it.
    You know… self driving cars would be perfect for people who like to be back seat drivers.
    Have a fabulous Friday. Hugs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Teagan. As someone who is frequently late to your place, I can easily say, you are always welcome here. Whether you drive yourself, get driven, send your robot, or even your purple chimp doppelganger :-)

      Have a great weekend!

      Liked by 1 person

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