A Critical Look at South Korea’s ‘Robot Suicide’ – Why It’s Mostly Hype & Clickbait

Wed Jul 10 2024

Most of us saw the news about a ‘robot committing suicide’ on July 6, 2024. It was covered by many major news outlets. Some even had special coverage of the issue and linked it to the work culture in South Korea. The event that led to this hype actually occurred on June 26 at the Gumi City Council building in South Korea.

Robot Suicide in South Korea
Before and after images of the service robot which was assigned at the Gumi City Council building in South Korea.

The Incident

The Gumi City Council was using an assistant robot to move between floors of the council building to deliver packages and for promotional purposes. It’s very common to see robots in offices, restaurants, and other public places in South Korea. According to the International Federation of Robotics, South Korea is known for its adoption of robots, with one industrial robot for every 10 employees.

On the date in question, the helper robot was found unresponsive and damaged, with parts scattered between the stairs of the first and second floors. From a primary examination of the incident images, it’s evident that the robot, which was not designed to manoeuvre stairs, was moved to the side of the stairs and, with further movement, slipped to the bottom of the staircase.

Robot Suicide in South Korea
Incident image of the robot falling through the stairs of Before and after images of the service robot which was assigned at the Gumi City Council building in South Korea. The wheels and base of the robot are very visible. We can also note the parts of the robot scattered on the stair floor. It’s evident that the fall was strong enough to make it unfit for operation.

Understanding the Type of Robot

There are many possible causes for this incident. The robot used by Gumi City Council can be classified as a service robot. Its activities also bring it into the categories of promotional robots, domestic robots, and social robots, but primarily it served service and promotional needs.

These robots are usually equipped with wheels, sensors, and other moving parts to ensure effective and efficient movement. You may not need a service robot at home, but a close relative might be a vacuum robot. The principles of wheel alignment, sensor placement, and logic are almost the same. These robots sense their surroundings using sensors like proximity sensors, cliff sensors, and sometimes cameras for visual input. The inputs from these sensors are processed to guide their movement.

Possible Causes for the Robot Moving to the Staircase

Faulty Wheel Axis/Wheels

As per the reports, there were eyewitnesses noting that a few hours before the incident, the robot was spinning at a single point. This is a common issue found in service robots when the wheel axis or a set of wheels has issues. In such cases, one set of wheels will be working properly, while the other set is not moving as intended, causing a spiral situation where the robot circles the same location like a pony tied to a pole.
If you watch this video, you can see that a vacuum cleaner robot was circling at the same spot because one set of wheels was not properly moving due to an axis issue.

Issues with Cliff Sensors

Cliff sensors help service robots detect depth and avoid falling into small pits or down staircases. If the robot’s cliff sensor was blocked by dust or malfunctioning, a fall is inevitable. Many domestic robot manufacturers face this as a common problem. Strong cliff sensors and faster processing help robots avoid damage from falls.

Robot Suicide in South Korea
Image of a generic cliff sensor used in service robots.

Faulty Proximity Sensor

A proximity sensor guides a robot to avoid crashing into walls or other objects. If the sensor isn’t working properly or gives faulty inputs, the robot may move irregularly or into areas it shouldn’t. A faulty proximity sensor can cause a robot to spin in circles or move in unintended paths.

Buggy Software Update or Glitches in the OS

Service robots have custom software with pre-programmed maps of their service area. A bug in a software update or a system glitch can disrupt the robot’s movement logic, causing it to wander into uncharted territory.

These are some common issues that service robots face. This information is available for anyone to look into before jumping to sensational conclusions.

The Media Hype and Flood of Clickbait

Many local media outlets covered the incident and built the initial hype. The hype peaked when international media houses like the Daily Mail, Times of India, and WION titled it the ‘world’s first robot suicide’.

Several online media portals, meme pages, and the general public reposted and reshared these news posts with their perspectives. There were even instances where people called for robot rights.

Mass media houses used this news to highlight the infamous work culture in South Korea and other parts of Asia. However, calling a simple system failure a ‘suicide’ was neither morally nor ethically right. Riding the wave of hype may bring in traffic due to clickbait, but in the long run, it may distort public perception of industrial robots. These media houses showed no regard for the gravity of using the word ‘suicide’ for something that is not living. If mechanical and tech errors were termed ‘suicides’, then there would be many daily headlines about floor-cleaning robots failing due to sensor issues.

If you have read through the whole article, we appreciate your choice to seek facts over sensationalized viewpoints. If you are curious about learning to build your own robots or robotic classes for kids, you can visit our offline campus website – https://www.airtics.ac.ae/

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