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Family of technician slain by factory robot sues everyone involved

TRT
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WTF?

Did they not have padlocked out power switches on the units?

$7000 fine. That's all?

And apparently state law is the reason families sue the equipment makers rather than the company.

"The Workers Compensation Disability Act prevents negligence claims against employers and coworkers across the country, in exchange for providing benefits to workers or their families in the case of injury or death.

However, in other states, employers can be sued for “recklessness” causing death or injury. In Michigan, it must be proven that there was an intentional effort to harm a worker.

If there is legal action, it is often taken against a third party that made, installed or serviced a product used in the workplace that caused or contributed to the injury or death."

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As far as the law goes, the usual reason for having a large list of defendants is joint and several liability: if one of your defendants has deep pockets you can go after them for 100% of the compensation even if they are only 1% liable, the idea being that it is then their burden to seek compensation from the other parties.

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Re: WTF?

"The Workers Compensation Disability Act prevents negligence claims against employers and coworkers across the country, in exchange for providing benefits to workers or their families in the case of injury or death.

I can hardly think of a better way to discourage employers to take an active interest in their employees' safety.

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"As far as the law goes, the usual reason for having a large list of defendants is joint and several liability: if one of your defendants has deep pockets you can go after them for 100% of the compensation even if they are only 1% liable, the idea being that it is then their burden to seek compensation from the other parties."

That sounds like a nasty bastardisation of what was probably the original intent. Surely it's up to the investigation/inquest and maybe a court case to apportion blame and compensation across the "jointly and severely liable" parties.

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And that's what's happening here - a court case that will apportion liability between the named parties.

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Re: WTF?

That was my exact thought, where's the lock-out, tag-out? Servicing live machines is simply nuts.

I assume the law was written as a bit of protection for the auto industry and likely has the nod from the auto unions since they're both corrupt and only interested in money and power while paying little more than lip service to the workers and paying vast sums to political hacks.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: WTF?

I used to work on robot systems. Normally there was a cage around the work cell and the robots would freeze if the door was opened. Each robot however had a key that would override the open fence circuit to allow the robots movements to be "trained" with an operator beside it. The robots also had collision detection that in theory would stop them dead if they make contact. I say in theory because it was configurable to allow for the force a robot needed both to perform its actions and to allow for the inertial effects of moving large lumps of metal at speed. A colleague was once demonstrating to me how safe the collision detection was and walked into a moving robot expecting it to stop. It didn't. He had forgotten he had turned the collision detection off to try out a high inertia move. He was knocked across the room but fortunately the only serious injury was to his pride.

I know nothing about the accident in the article, however I do know a host of things can regrettably combine to put people at risk when working with metal in motion. Unfortunately people are all convinced that it's safe right till the very avoidable accident happens.

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Anonymous Coward

Weird

> And that's what's happening here - a court case that will apportion liability between the named parties.

Except it's unlikely any of the makers of the equipment in question are to blame.

At least some robotics manufacturers have robots with reasonable force feedback / safety abilities. They're not on every model though, and it's up to the workplace/employer which models they buy, how things are implemented, and so on.

It sounds like the workplace had insufficient safeguards, practises, etc.

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Happy

Re: WTF?

"the auto unions since they're both corrupt and only interested in money and power while paying little more than lip service to the workers and paying vast sums to political hacks.".

What a sad and stupid thing to write. The smallest sin in this world is to be stupid. But as I assume you are not, and that was not just a copy/past, more is demanded from you than a sad and stupid sentence like that.

Read some more, grasp some more about industrial history in this world, how it works and doesn't work yesterday and today.

Trying to make this comment short, it's like with a nice bath, it's about the right combination of both cold and warm water.

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Facepalm

Re: barbara.hudson

".....a court case that will apportion liability between the named parties." Not necessarily. Once professional lawyers get involved it becomes more about the settlement amount than blame. This is what is referred to legally as the "Shotgun Approach" - sue everyone involved, and then whittle it down to those that can actually pay the most in a settlement. Blame becomes largely irrelevant. The US example case we were given waaaaaaay back in school was as follows.

Two hoodlums broke into a man's house and, amongst other items, stole the keys to his Italian supercar. They then went on a rampage around town in the supercar, before trying to race a freight train to a level crossing. Unfortunately for them the outcome was a draw, and the car was thrown into the air, not only killing the two hoodlums but also landing on and killing a man making a call from a roadside telephone box (which gives Deadpool fans a hint as to how old the case is!).

The family of the man making the call hired lawyers and sued everyone - the estates of the dead hoodlums; the owner of the supercar, for not having secured his vehicle's keys; the makers of the Italian supercar, for not having additional security beyond the key; the train company, for having an engine design that threw the car into the air rather than holding onto it; the local county and state for allowing a phone box to be placed "too closely" to the crossing; and the telephone company. They eventually withdrew all the suits but one - the hoodlums didn't leave any money worth suing for; the car's owner had quite extensive security on his house, making it hard to claim he hadn't taken proper precautions; the supercar maker showed their car's security was to the industry standard, and that the security had not been disabled or bye-passed, but had operated in the correct manner in being disarmed by the key; the train company showed their design too met the relevant standards; and the local county and state simply did the legal equivalent of laughing at them. But the telephone company settled, because they did not want to go to court and risk losing on the basis that they had not properly designed their road-side telephone booth to allow it to withstand a vehicle landing on top of it! Do you think the telephone company was the party "most at fault" in that case?

I am not familiar with the design of the robots involved and the safeguards built into them, but there is a simple rule of thumb when dealing with machinery - if in any doubt, switch it off before you risk your life or limbs servicing it! IMHO, it seems Wanda should have followed that simple rule or refused to carry out the work.

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>if one of your defendants has deep pockets you can go after them for 100% of the compensation even if they are only 1% liable, t

There was a case where a kid was hit by a car and they sued the makers of the jeans he was wearing because the driver of the car had no money. When you are on the hook for the kids medical bills it is the only way

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Re: WTF?

Generally speaking and looking at history, companies really don't want to give any interest to employee safety. It takes unions and laws to force them to as safety and the like affect the bottom line. Read Sinclair Lewis's "The Jungle" sometime. At the time he wrote this, the meat packing industry didn't give a crap about worker safety or the safety of what they packed. The bottom line ruled.

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Re: WTF?

>Read some more, grasp some more about industrial history<

You haven't stated your nationality, so I'm going to assume, since this is a UK site, and on the basis of your post, that you know nothing about the USA union movement.

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Terminator

Re: barbara.hudson

@Matt Bryant "I am not familiar with the design of the robots involved and the safeguards built into them, but there is a simple rule of thumb when dealing with machinery - if in any doubt, switch it off before you risk your life or limbs servicing it! IMHO, it seems Wanda should have followed that simple rule or refused to carry out the work."

I completely agree with your point. That said, my knowledge of labo(u)r laws in the Land of the Free<super>TM</super> is that if she'd declined to work on it for that reason it would have been a one way ticket to "Well, go and find another job, then; and don't let the door hit you on the ass as you leave.". If you've got a roof to keep over your head and mouths to feed that makes the decision much harder.

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Re: barbara.hudson

" if she'd declined to work on it..."

Maybe, maybe not. But it's entirely irrelevant - you can always get some other job sooner or later, but nobody ever got a second life. Sure you don't know beforehand this is the time it's about to happen to you, but it doesn't matter - whatever the probability of an accident is, with some things, it's too much. You don't service heavy machinery that's still powered, work on high voltage stuff* "expecting" it's off, and so on. You just don't.

*If you ARE working on live high voltage stuff knowingly, hey, I'm not judging, but I have to tell you son you've made some questionable choices in your life...

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Re: WTF?

It takes unions and laws to force them to as safety and the like affect the bottom line.

Agreed that laws are important to force their attention to safety, but the most powerful laws have been those that allow lawsuits against employers over worker injury.

Generally speaking and looking at history, companies really don't want to give any interest to employee safety.

Have you worked in a large company or just learned about them from Hollywood? I currently work as an engineer at an American aerospace industrial facility with everything from walk-in furnaces to room-sized machine tools and a suite of unhealthy chemicals. At my prior employer, I was a part time environmental, health, and safety coordinator for the facility (when engineering work got scarce).

The people most involved in worker safety are shop supervisors, managers, and workers themselves, the folks on the factory floor. Someone getting pressure-cooked in a large autoclave might eventually send a corner office desk jockey to an early retirement, but the people immediately responsible (and fired, and distraught) will be those who worked with the victim, had lunch with the victim, and had beers after work with the victim. They have every say about day-to-day worker safety but little responsibility or concern for budgets, so they can (and do) block work until they have EHS buy-in, work instructions, and a good level of comfort that the task is safe enough that they'll never have to face their friend's bereaved next of kin because of an industrial accident.

Even the executives are more gun shy about lawsuits than profit that they'll cancel programs to avoid the risk. (Or I should say, "They're more gun shy about lawsuits erasing profits...") For example, since beryllium machining is such a niche, nearly-monopolized industry because its rarity and hazards, we were going to build our own facility to cut, grind, polish, and otherwise work with beryllium and its alloys. Besides helping our own production schedule and costs, it had the potential to generate a healthy profit by taking outside contracts. After several million dollars were sunk into a facility with fantastic air filtration and safety features, executives canceled it. They were terrified of the word "berylliosis" and the lawsuits it brought.

"Only interested in money." Last year, I found a new adhesive that could save some money. It cured in one day instead of seven but did the job of the old adhesive, so it cut some production time and labor costs from assembly. The new adhesive was already used by our customer, so it was a win-win-win situation: same material price, faster cure, less labor, better maintainability. I battled with our EHS department for six months to bring it on site because they couldn't find "fumed silica" on the EPA's toxic substances registry. Fumed silica is a food and drug safe substance used in everything from baby aspirin to ketchup and shampoo, which the EHS personnel used at home and allowed to be used in our cafeteria, but darned if they'd allow workers to be exposed to it when it was bound up in a thick adhesive. I finally got a signed, official document from the EPA to tell them fumed silica was safe to let it in.

No, companies can exhibit a mind boggling amount of concern about worker safety even at the expense of profit and common sense. At the higher levels, the key factor seems to be fear of lawsuits.

Read Sinclair Lewis's "The Jungle" sometime.

I have, several times, and own a copy. I'm reminded of the huge strides made between then and now when I look at worker injury statistics over time, or when my EHS department blocks me from procuring stainless steel because it has chromium in it. (That happened, too.)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: WTF?

just because you write "its sad and stupid" does not necessarily make it so.

you take a previous statement and deride it while adding nothing but your own opinion, and add personal insults to it.

Sad that others around here think a personal insult without any sort of fact, research, or link of any sort is upvote worthy.

disagreeing with opinion is one thing. needing to start the personal attack, well, we all know how bullies are perceived.

Unions while necessary to a point HAVE and DO fail their rank and file spectacularly on many occasions, often neglecting their basic duties to play national and international political games and only producing contracts at the last minute for their members to vote on.

Ask yourself why Union activity vs Volkswagen and other automakers who have opposed unionization and retaliated against workers are attacked as deserved, but other automakers like Tesla who also oppose unionization and make personal attacks on long term employees claiming they only got hired (years ago) to agitate for unionization, are completely and explicitly ignored?

the Union should be as willing to protect workers for ANY auto manufacturer, not just the ones in states where their political allies aren't in charge.

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It's confusing

"...was performing routine maintenance on one of the robots on the trailer hitch assembly line when the unit unexpectedly activated and attempted to load a part into the unit being repaired, crushing Holbrook's head."

"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,"

I'm having difficulty undertstanding all that. 'Robot', 'unit', 'section', 'fixture', .... are robot/unit and section/fixture the same thing? Was she killed by the robot she was working on or by another robot that moved between sections?

Either way, why did they have power connected? (and other related questions.)

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Re: It's confusing

And based on the actions alleged to have been carried out by the "robot", it's even less of a robot than most of the automated machinery mistakenly called robots in industry. It didn't appear to have any form of feedback to be used in decision making for what to do next. It sounds like all it is capable of doing is a simple set of pre-programmed actions.

To be called a robot, a machine should, at the very least, have sensors to give it some situational awareness and enough cpu power to make decisions based on that awareness, eg not trying to jam a heavy component into a place which is obstructed by a human head, ie it should have some level of autonomy.

Based on that, it could have a marked effect on who exactly is responsible for the accident.

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Re: It's confusing

@frank ly said: "I'm having difficulty undertstanding all that. 'Robot', 'unit', 'section', 'fixture', .... are robot/unit and section/fixture the same thing? "

The "robot" will be the big mechanical arm which moves about. In this case the manufacturer will be either Fanuc or Nachi. Those are two different robot companies, so it's hard to understand why both are involved unless of course both brands of robots were present.

Lincoln Electric makes welding equipment. The robots may have had Lincoln welders on the end of their arms, or they may have been loading parts into equipment that had Lincoln welders.

A "fixture" will be a unit of custom tooling that is machined to hold and clamp the parts being manufactured. The fixtures would be attached to the frame of the work cell, or to the end of a robot arm.

A "unit" or "section" would be subdivision of the larger overall production line. Those are not necessarily the terms used by the manufacturing companies, they may be just names made up by the lawyer. The sections being labelled "130" and "140" doesn't imply that there are 140 or more "sections". The work cells may be divided up into smaller sub-divisions, and there may be an implied decimal such that it was the 13th or 14th "section", or even the 1st section. You would have to see the electrical and mechanical layout to understand how it was labelled.

The overall production line will have been built in sections at the integrator, run off and approved by the customer. Then the sections would have been unbolted and unplugged from one another, put on trucks and shipped to the customer where they would have been bolted and plugged back together, tested, etc.

Flex-N-Gate appears to be the company that owns the factory in question. They're a large automotive parts manufacturer with multiple plants, and this is one of them.

Prodomax is a large Canadian automation manufacturer located north of Torronto. Their role in this will have been to design and build the production line. They would have bought the robots and loads of other components and designed them into the production line, built the framework and tooling, done loads of wiring, written software, etc. Fanuc, Nachi, and Lincoln Electric would likely have had very peripheral involvement in the actual project.

I've done business with Prodomax as a customer (although not recently), and they were a well run very professional organisation. They've won awards for being a well managed company. The chances that they did anything dodgy or cut any corners on safety are pretty slim, although it is of course impossible to discount some sort of human error.

If their customer was in Ontario, the equipment would have had to go through a formal safety review by a certified safety engineer (usually an independent third party consultant). I don't know what Prodomax does, but I do know that other Canadian companies won't sell equipment to US customers without a similar review simply because of legal liability reasons. I know of at least one small automation company who stopped doing business in the US because the cost of liability insurance there was too high to make it worthwhile when they could pursue business opportunities elsewhere.

Normal safety practice in a case where you are entering a work cell such as this to do maintenance is to lock out the equipment power switch with a padlock for which only you have a key. If there are multiple people involved, there are special attachments which allow multiple individual padlocks to be attached. If you go home and forget your padlock, then your supervisor has to talk to you on the phone and confirm your presence there before cutting the lock off with a set of bolt cutters.

In cases where you need the robotic equipment "live" to diagnose a problem, then you would insert a key into the machine somewhere to change the mode, and plug in a "three position switch". This would be a hand-held device, sometimes built into the robot teach pendant, which only allows the robot to move in very slow motion if the switch is in a middle position. If you let go of it or squeeze it too hard, the slow moving robot is disabled. This is a standard feature built into the robot itself, and is very reliable.

The reports say that the person in question worked in the maintenance department. As such, she should have been well trained in safety procedures. The equipment will have come with extensive manuals (not that anyone generally reads such things) which would have covered this. Whether she was authorised to enter the machine at that time is of course one of the questions which will likely be raised in the lawsuit.

The reports say that her duties involved adjusting the robot and tooling. Quite likely, she was the person whose job it was to tweak the robot to adjust for variations in the incoming component dimensions or material to deal with quality issues.

The reports are unclear, but it is quite possible that multiple different groups of people were working on different tasks in different parts of the work cell, and one group triggered an adjacent robot to cycle when she was in the machine working on another. Normally I would have expected her to lock out the adjacent robot before working on her own. Why that didn't take place is a very good question, and one that can probably be only answered by the supervisors working for her employer.

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Re: It's confusing

Funuc makes the control heads for automated equipment - seen them used for big Komo router tables, lathes, and robots.

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TRT
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Here's an analysis. Exact details are sketchy and seem not to be a matter of public record. How on earth are companies expected to be "educated before they are legislated" if they hide the accident reports?

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Sounds like unit 130 should have been locked off too, and wasn't.

Whether that's a failure of procedure or design, I wouldn't like to say (though I suspect design was poor and so procedure was supposed to make up for it .. unit 140 shutoff should have disabled 130, too).

It's even possible (though very bad design) that shutting off 140 where Wanda was looking at a part already in place caused 130 to misdetect that another part was needed.

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Short On Detail

Reading the analyis: I don't see any indication that Unit 130 malfunctioned. The description would be consistent with 130 doing what it was designed to do because it was not shut down/locked out also.

If that IS the case, then we're looking at human failure in the lock down process.

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TRT
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Re: Short On Detail

It would appear that one "cell" is a separate production line; a set of processes that take in some physical item, be that raw materials or blanks, or part-finished items, and produces a more completed product. As such all the production units in the "100 cell" should have shut down if one of the stations had shut down. Alternatively, there may be two "lines" and the handoff from each station to the next should only happen along energised paths.

Certainly any idea that turning off one robot should somehow leave the robots on the input or output side still operating is just bizarre. It's a massive logical failure.

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From the cited analysis: Likely as a result of the state of Michigan's history as a leader in automotive manufacturing, manufacturers have some legal protections in the state that won't be found elsewhere

So basically the comment by "Eddy Ito" hit the mark when he said "I assume the law was written as a bit of protection for the auto industry and likely has the nod from the auto unions since they're both corrupt and only interested in money and power while paying little more than lip service to the workers and paying vast sums to political hacks."

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Terminator

Can only

upvote the previous.

Where the hell where the procedues to padlock the power supply to the robots?

Which is what I drill relentlessly into the newbies at work

"Never go into the cage unless there is a padlock on the power supply"

But more to the point... the primary liability for that worker's health and safety was the company that employed him, and yet the company is protected from liability if anything goes wrong...

Bet this case goes down the cracks in the law with the equipment manufacturers saying it was the employers fault and the employers saying it was the manufacturers fault.... and the victims getting nothing

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Re: Can only

Exactly. It's lesson 101. And a beautifully simple and effective system. Everyone entering an area where the safe working procedure requires de-energising the equipment has their own padlock, uniquely keyed and often colour coded. The padlock fits into a plate and locks it to prevent the supply being energised. The worker takes the padlock key with them into the area. The plate cannot be removed until every last padlock is removed, so if someone is still in the area, a co-worker cannot accidentally re-energise the plant.

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Re: Can only

"Bet this case goes down the cracks"

... That is exactly what joint and several liability protects victims from. You get you compensation from one party with the ability to pay and it becomes their responsibility to seek reimbursement from other parties.

This is why you will often see the highways department or equivalent cited as a co-defendant in a road traffic collision. If they have any fault at all, they pay the entire compensation, and the onus is now upon them to sue other liable parties.

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Re: Can only

Surely the lesson here is that once you have even semi autonomous robots a simple padlock system is no longer adequate. Unless you can shut the whole system down, which you usually can't, you need to use a more complex system of interlocks. It's not really that difficult: the rail industry has been doing it for something like 150 years and I have no doubt the automation industryh as a good understanding of the principles. They just need to be motivated to apply them by the application of a painfully large fine.

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Re: Can only

"The plate cannot be removed until every last padlock is removed, so if someone is still in the area, a co-worker cannot accidentally re-energise the plant."

And it's not even a new technique they can claim not to have learned about or implemented yet. It's a variation of the miners collecting and returning their tokens and lamps or trains/trams and their tokens for being allowed to go up or down a single track line.

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Re: Can only

From just what i read here in this article the actual manufacturing company does not seem to be a defendant? If so, I wonder why. It seems to me that the company's policies should have prevented this if they were followed.

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Re: Can only

State law exempts them. Read the article.

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Anonymous Coward

Robots pay no taxes

Dead humans as a result of serving the robots for the benefit of their 1% owners is the new normal.

Get back to your serfdom and drudgery you proles. There's an episode of 'Ow my balls' for you to watch.

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'Slain'

Gotta love the headline.

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Re: 'Slain'

I clearly didn't have enough coffee yet and parsed the headline as the robot having slain the whole family.

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A.I. could free humanity...

... but when the super-rich and corporations OWN all the A.I. and robots (already), and replace almost all jobs (more and more), what will you do?

The rich are NOT going to feed and care for you....

Bet on it.

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Of course the corporations will free humanity.

I believe the expression is 'let them go'.

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Taken to the extreme logical conclusion, yes, there'll be a few families who own everything and everything will be 100% automated. So who is left to buy the products and keep the super rich rich? If there's no one below you in the pecking order, are you rich or "poor"? It all gets a bit philosophical if we start making assumptions that anyone not owning production will eventually die out through lack means. Customers are vital part of the getting rich process.

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Pint

The only solution - and the only hope - is that robots become so cheap to make that people band together to form communities to build and run them for the benefit of the entire community. Given that the alternative is to be bored silly because you've been replaced by a robot, it shouldn't take an impossibly large percentage of the population to implement it.

Think of when robots are "free as in beer."

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Re: Customers are vital part of the getting rich process.

Henry Ford understood this at the beginning of his career when he decided to pay his employees a high wage at the time, so they might afford to buy his product.

Seems to have been forgotten now.

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Happy

Re: Customers are vital part of the getting rich process.

Thanks for not forgetting the "at the beginning of his career". Something about unions I think Eddy Ito could have a look at, and why not look at Walt Disney too. YouTube is an easy start.

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Re: Customers are vital part of the getting rich process.

It's not forgotten. It's called the 'tragedy of the commons' - once there are enough people in the system, they work to rip each other off (rely on other higher earners to buy the cars) rather than supporting it themselves.

Corporates, being the sum of their boards rather than individuals, kept away from this for a while. But they learnt to employ their requirement to provide shareholder value as an excuse for no-holds-barred greed, so they went the way of the rest.

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"Taken to the extreme logical conclusion, yes, there'll be a few families who own everything and everything will be 100% automated. So who is left to buy the products and keep the super rich rich?"

Each other. As long as there are at least two such families and each can provide something the other can't, there can be an agreement between them.

Otherwise, the families become self-sufficient and don't need anyone else. Their robots will be strictly for themselves and they won't need to engage in commerce anymore.

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Coat

Who is liable?

The suit marks a grim but potentially important issue that will arise as more workplaces phase out manual labor in favor of robotic workers. When one of those units malfunctions and injures or kills human staff, just who should be considered liable?

Why, you call Elijah Baley of course. He will find out.

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Robot manufacturer not integrator?

For a system like this wouldn't there be a company who integrates all the robots together and does the design? My work's robots (used for drug discovery) are usually setup this way. Assuming there was an integrator involved, wouldn't that company be at fault for this?

Happy to be corrected if this isn't how robots in this industry work.

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TRT
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Re: Robot manufacturer not integrator?

They're being sued too.

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Re: Robot manufacturer not integrator?

This, otherwise you could happily sue all of the sub component and component manufacturers

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Thumb Up

Re: Robot manufacturer not integrator?

I noticed that when I reread it. Thanks for pointing it out ->

Where's the icon for "Mea Culpa"?

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