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7 Dec, 2018 04:48

Robot uprising? Amazon warehouse bot sends 24 human employees to hospital with bear mace

 Robot uprising? Amazon warehouse bot sends 24 human employees to hospital with bear mace

Two dozen Amazon employees were hospitalized when one of their robot coworkers malfunctioned, spraying their workplace (and 30 more workers) with caustic bear repellent and putting one in a critical condition.

Disaster struck when a robot co-worker "accidentally" tore open a 9-ounce can of bear repellent at Amazon's Robbinsville, New Jersey fulfillment warehouse on Wednesday, exposing 55 employees to concentrated capsaicin, the active ingredient in pepper spray.

Thirty employees were treated on the scene, while 24 more were dispersed across five local hospitals "as a precaution" for "evaluation and treatment," according to a statement from Amazon. One was reported to be in "critical condition," though details were not forthcoming. Amazon assured media that all workers would be discharged from the hospitals within 24 hours.

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Amazon employs thousands of robots at its warehouse facilities. Robo-stow arms pick products from shelves, smaller droids cart pallets of goods around the warehouse floor, and larger machines load and unload delivery trucks. Unlike their human colleagues, the robots never complain about the “inhuman” working conditions at the centers.

The robots never pass out from exhaustion, never gripe about having to work through injuries, and don’t have to relieve themselves into bottles to meet their productivity targets. Unlike their human counterparts – seven of whom died working at Amazon’s warehouses since 2013 – the robots can be repaired and sent right back out to work after injury.

For Amazon’s human workers, conditions at the facilities are so punishing that the company has been listed on the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ list of dangerous companies to work for. Now, it seems that fending off robot attacks is just another occupational hazard at Amazon.

Amazon claimed a "full investigation is already underway," thanking emergency personnel who responded to the scene. Employees were reportedly relocated to a "safe place," though those "experiencing symptoms" were said to be treated "onsite" - presumably not in the warehouse full of bear repellent. A tweet from the Robbinsville fire department painted a rather more dire picture of the situation, mentioning "7 ambulances and a medic" assigned to the scene and multiple employees becoming ill.

The warehouse incident came one day after Google’s sister company, Deepmind, announced a breakthrough in artificial intelligence. A chess-playing robot developed by the company had begun to develop signs of human-like intuition and improvisation, prompting one of its creators to declare a “turning point” for AI.

So was the bear mace incident the beginning of the machine uprising? Unlikely. Working around unfeeling automatons carries some of the same hazards that working around steam-powered machines did during the industrial revolution. This played out in 2015 when a robot at a Volkswagen plant in Germany grabbed a human worker by the chest and slammed him into a metal slab. The robot had been programmed to grab auto parts and manipulate them, and could not tell the worker from a part. Well, that’s what VW would have you believe.

Regardless, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union responded to Wednesday’s incident by accusing Amazon of “putting hard working people's lives at risk.” The robot, it said, put the human workers in “life-threatening danger.” Amazon workers are not unionized, but when the threat comes from potentially killer androids, species solidarity supersedes union ties.

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