Chess robot broke seven-year-old’s finger during tournament. But how rare is such a case?

The injury caused by a chess-playing robot raises questions about long-term safety.

Earlier this month, according to Russian media, a chess-playing robot broke the finger of a seven-year-old boy during a match at the Moscow Open competition.

When the child made his move, the robot grabbed his finger and held it for several seconds before he was freed.

Sergey Smagin, vice-president of the Russian Chess Federation, told the Baza Telegram channel that the boy had taken his move too quickly.

"There are certain safety rules and the child, apparently, violated them. When he made his move, he did not realise he first had to wait," he said.

The robot had taken part in a number of competitions, including three matches without incident earlier that day. "This is an extremely rare case, the first I can recall," said Smagin.

'Killer' robots

Thanks to the circumstances, this was an unusual event, but in fact, robots frequently cause injuries or even death.

The first such victim is believed to be Robert Williams, who was crushed to death by a robot on Ford’s Michigan production line in 1979. Similarly, in 2015, a robotic arm crushed and killed a contractor at a Volkswagen plant in Germany.

And in one particularly unpleasant case, a Chinese factory worker was impaled by spikes when a factory robot collapsed - although he, at least, survived.

Meanwhile, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting, internal documents reveal that there were 50 per cent more injuries at Amazon fulfillment centres using robots compared with those without.

There's little data on how many accidents are caused by robots each year; one report lists 17 in Korea during 2019. And there, at least, the number is falling, from a high of 40 in 2012.

However, the report lists only those robot accidents that occurred in manufacturing and construction environments – and robots are now finding their way into other areas of life in ever-increasing numbers.

They are now widely used for surgical procedures, and there has been at least one fatality as a result: in 2015, a man underwent robotic surgery for mitral valve disease in the UK and died after the robot knocked into a medic and misplaced stitches.

Robotic surgery was also linked to 144 deaths and nearly 1,400 injuries in the US between 2000 and 2013. Reasons included burnt or broken pieces of tools falling into the patient, electrical sparking and robots making unintended movements.

However, most robot accidents tend to be, one way or another, caused by human error. Only five of the deaths and 436 of the injuries, the report found, were specifically linked to technical mistakes that took place during an operation.

The risks of autonomous vehicles

In the coming years, the robots most likely to present risks to life and limb are autonomous vehicles. According to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were nearly 400 crashes involving cars with partially autonomous driver assistance systems between July 2021 and May 2022.

And as the industry moves to fully-autonomous vehicles, the safety risks escalate enormously. Most tests have so far been carried out in relatively predictable environments - either special tracks or major highways. Even so, there have been fatalities and injuries. If autonomous vehicles make it into general use, the risks can only rise.

Earlier this year, the UK Law Commissions recommended that when a car is authorized by a regulatory agency as having 'self-driving features' and those features are in use, the person in the driving seat would no longer be responsible for how the car drives. Instead, the company or body that obtained the authorization would face regulatory sanctions if anything goes wrong.

Similarly, for fully-automated vehicles, a licensed operator would be responsible for overseeing the journey.

Were such rules to become the norm, it would place an enormous burden on operators – unless, of course, autonomous vehicles could be made as safe as conventional cars.

The bottom line is that robots are tools – more complicated than most, but still tools. Users need training and concentration while interacting with them. And, as with any other tool, manufacturers have a responsibility to make them as safe as possible.

Accidents will always happen – but a thoughtful balance of responsibility between manufacturer and operator should mean that robots are no riskier than any other new technologies.