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Richard Epstein
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Case of the Killer Robot


Author(s) Richard G. Epstein Mike Melamed

Richard G. Epstein, Westchester University of Pennsylvania
Mike Melamed, CWRU 2000

The Case of the Killer Robot is a detailed scenario that combines elements of software engineering and computer ethics.

The scenario consists of fictitious articles that touch on specific issues in software engineering and computer ethics. The articles discuss programs such as programmer psychology, team dynamics, user interfaces, software process models, software testing, the nature of requirements, software theft, and privacy. A major consideration is "when is the software good enough?"

The articles in the scenario begin with the indictment for manslaughter of a programmer who wrote faulty code that caused the death of a robot operator. Slowly, over the course of many articles, students are introduced to factors within the software company that also contributed to the accident. They are shown software development as a social process. It is hoped that students will begin to realize the complexity of the task of building real-world software and to see some of the ethical issues intertwined in that complexity.

This scenario is about 70 pages long and includes some tongue-in-cheek humor.

For permission see author information.

Contributor(s) Richard G. Epstein
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Publisher National Academy of Engineering, Online Ethics Center
Language English
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ModifiedThursday, Jan 21, 2016 at 3:49 PM
Silicon Valley Programmer Indicted For Manslaughter: Program Error Caused Death by Robot

Mabel Muckraker

Special to the Silicon Valley Sentinel-Observer

Silicon Valley, USA

Jane McMurdock, prosecuting attorney for the city of Silicon Valley, announced today the indictment of Randy Samuels on charges of manslaughter. Samuels was formerly employed as a programmer at Silicon Techtronics Inc., one of Silicon Valley's newest entries into the high-tech arena. The charge involves the death of Bart Matthews, who was killed last May by an assembly-line robot.

Matthews worked as a robot operator at Cybernetics Inc., in Silicon Heights. He was crushed to death when the robot he was operating malfunctioned and started to wave its "arm" violently. The robot arm struck Matthews, throwing him against a wall and crushing his skull. Matthews died almost instantly. The case has shocked and angered many in Silicon Valley. According to the indictment, Samuels wrote the particular piece of computer program responsible for the robot malfunction.

"There's a smoking gun!" McMurdock announced triumphantly at a press conference held in the Hall of Justice. "We have the handwritten formula, provided by the project physicist, which Samuels was supposed to program. But, he negligently misinterpreted the formula, leading to this gruesome death. Society must protect itself against programmers who make careless mistakes or else no one will be safe, least of all our families and our children."

The Sentinel-Observer has obtained a copy of the handwritten formula in question. There are actually three similar formulas, scrawled on a piece of yellow legal pad paper. Each formula describes the motion of the robot arm in one direction: east-west, north-south and up-down. The Sentinel-Observer showed the formulas to Bill Park, a professor of physics at Silicon Valley University. He confirmed that these equations could be used to describe the motion of a robot arm. The Sentinel-Observer then showed Park the program code, written by the accused in the C programming language. We asked Park, who is fluent in C and several other languages, whether the program code was correct for the given robot-arm formulas.

Park's response was immediate. He exclaimed, "By Jove! It looks like he misinterpreted the y-dots in the formulas as y-bars, and he made the same mistake for the x's and the z's. He was supposed to use the derivatives, but he took the averages instead. He's guilty as hell, if you ask me."

The Sentinel-Observer was unable to contact Samuels for comment. "He is deeply depressed about all this," his live-in girlfriend told us over the phone, "but Randy believes he will be acquitted when he gets a chance to tell his side of the story."


Cite this page: "Silicon Valley Programmer Indicted For Manslaughter: Program Error Caused Death by Robot" Online Ethics Center for Engineering 2/16/2006 National Academy of Engineering Accessed: Saturday, February 6, 2016 <>