Death by Robot

The first recorded human death by robot was in 1979, when Robert Williams, a 25 year old Ford Motor assembly line worker, was slammed by a robot arm as he gathered parts in a storage facility. The incident occurred in Flat Rock, Michigan, and Williams’ family was awarded 10 million dollars in damages after the jury agreed that Williams’ death was the result of a lack of safety measures on the part of Ford Motor.

These days, robots have become fairly commonplace, and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates believes that robots are likely to become the focus of the next technological frontier. With increasing advancements in the field of robotics, more and more Americans are becoming concerned about these machines. The two primary concerns are that the robots will replace the need for human workers and that robotic intelligence may exceed human intelligence.

Robot: a real or imaginary machine that is controlled by a computer and is often made to look like a human or animal; a machine that can do the work of a person and that works automatically or is controlled by a computer. First known use: 1922. The word “robot” comes from the Czech word for “forced labor.”


Intelligent. Latin intelligens, to recognize, understand, discern; smart, talented, capable; think abstractly, use reason, then act.

Clever. From English clever. Intelligent, tactical; flexible, adaptable; to recognize all available options.

Smartphone. An English term quickly adopted by the German people because it so succinctly describes the product. There is no German equivalent.

Mitdenken. Literally think with. To think independently, to anticipate; thoughtful, reflective.

Tools serve

Tool: A handheld device that aids in accomplishing a task; something such as an instrument or apparatus used in performing an operation or necessary in the practice of a vocation or profession; an element of a computer program that activates and controls a particular function; a means to an end; one that is used or manipulated by another.

Americans use the term tool in many different situations. A tool is practical, pragmatic, singular, specialized. They are always at hand, simple, easy to use, precise. A tool does exactly what the user wants it to. They are not only physical and mechanical, like a hammer, screwdriver, a wrench. Tools can assist with sophisticated tasks, including those purely mental, such as software, financial analytical tools. Intelligent tools are only as intelligent as the people who created and those using them.

Programmable appliances: Appliances like microwaves and coffee makers are becoming increasingly sophisticated, with added features such as programmable start/stop functions and alarms. Modern appliances are much easier to use and program than previous generations. They are frequently redesigned to be more user friendly. This is a response to consumers’ demands for products which do much of the thinking for them.

Easy to use: Intelligent products can be used by not so intelligent people. Most modern products – including household appliances, automobiles, computers & software, tablets, smartphones, electronics in general – employ large, simple displays with large buttons and easy to follow protocols. They are designed to be simple and to avoid overwhelming users with low-value, distracting features. Although more advanced features are often possible, they do not crowd out the simplicity of the product. All possible measures are taken to make the product as easy to use as possible.

It is up to the customer to decide the level of sophistication they seek in a product. The most basic models are always available for beginners, while many companies offer far more advanced models of appliances or electronics for more knowledgeable users. For example, there are various levels of stereos and TVs for consumers who want different features and levels of sophistication.

iPhone OS as a tool: One example of a simplistic, intelligent tool is the operating system of Apple products like the iPhone and iPod. Apple favors an elegant, easy to use design over more complex designs. Most people can quickly figure out how to use an Apple product by simply using their fingers and following on-screen prompts. Options are limited and presented in a layered, decision tree fashion. Many other electronic and appliance products have begun to employ similarly simplistic and user friendly designs.


Smart power: In international relations, the term smart power refers to the combination of hard and soft power strategies. It is defined by the Center for Strategic and International Studies as “an approach that underscores the necessity of a strong military, but also invests heavily in alliances, partnerships, and institutions of all levels to expand American influence and establish legitimacy of American action.

It is smart because it achieves the desired outcome with the minimum amount of effort and utilizes every available resource. It focuses on the desired political effect.

Intelligent products: Products increasingly rely on technology that thinks for the user. Some examples are social networking (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), smart phones, software, weapons systems, and home automation systems.

Social networking now includes functions that match peoples’ networks and interests and suggest friends or connections. This decreases the amount of time that a user needs to search for users similar to themselves. Smart phones include voice recognition software and question-answer functions like the popular Siri function of the iPhone 4S. Software often reminds users to complete tasks like upgrading software or checks to ensure a user intended to take a certain action.

Weapons systems enable troops to save time by identifying friendly and hostile forces and automatically alerting allied troops of nearby threats. In the home automation sector, technologies such as the Nest thermostat learns the patterns of its users and automatically adjusts the temperature of the home in accordance with previous trends.

Intelligent, not independent

Team member to team lead. Product to consumer. Could there be a link between those two relationships? Could it be that how a culture defines the relationship between team lead and team member is similar or analogous to the relationship between the consumer (B2C) or the customer (B2B) on the one side and the product on the other? Between the consumer and the electronic device like a computer, tablet smartphone, or between the customer and a complex production system?

But analogous not in the sense that employees are tools, objects, inhuman – although certainly there are managers, organizations, companies who indeed treat their employees as means to an end. More in the sense that it is expected that the employee, the team member, get the job done, make work and life easier for management, for fellow employees, for internal or external customers.

In the American product philosophy, how intelligent should a product be: kitchen oven, washer, automobile, computers and their software, technologies which utilize forms of artificial intelligence? Intelligent in the sense of independent, of the user?

Just as the American team lead reserves the right to go from the strategic level down to the tactical in order to manage or even implement (player-coach), so too the American consumer (B2C) or customer (B2B) wants a product which can be managed, controlled, directed, steered, run.

See the print advertisements, including large banners for example in airports, stating „Company X runs SAP.“ Enterprise software, highly complex, but at the service, at the disposal, of the client.

Americans want intelligent products, yes, but not independent of purpose. And the user determines the purpose, not the product itself.

Easy, intuitive

Every B2C consumer, every B2B client, in every business culture, prefers products and solutions which are easy to use, user-friendly, intuitive. The term used in the past was „fool proof“, meaning even a person of low intelligence can use it. „Fool“ is a mean-spirited term which, thankfully, is rarely used.

But, what do Americans mean by „easy to use, user-friendly, intuitive“? Is it the same in all business cultures? How easy should „easy“ be? Intuitive for what level of intelligence?

Americans value, admire, and most tellingly honor with their money, products which are both sophisticated and user-friendly. In general, they consider it to be a high art form to make the complex simple. See Apple products.

America has many different types of people, backgrounds, mentalities, levels of education and sophistication. Also the largest single market. For products to be successful they have to be easy to use, user-friendly, intuitive.

The American product philosophy: ease of use. The American approach to persuasion: break down complexity into its component parts. Decision making: isolate individual decisions, focus on the essential. This is a pattern.

Products thinking with

Mitdenken – thinking with – meaning thoughtful, deliberate, reasoned action taking into consideration possible advantages and disadvantages, is clearly a German character trait. It should not be a surprise that there are How-to books advising managers on how to think with. 

Along with people in Germany who think with there are also products in Germany which think with, developed to make life easier, safer and more comfortable.

They are often referred to in English as smart. Smart packaging which inform consumers about the product. Smart materials in eyeglasse which dim when sunlight is too bright. Smart wind turbines which turn automatically to the wind in order optimize electricity gain.

Smart automobiles whose steering wheel notices if the driver is falling asleep and sets off an alarm. Such cars also have smart headlights which adjust to oncoming traffic and read speed limit signs and inform the driver.


Mitdenken – literally mit with + denken thinking. With-thinking or thinking with. A very German word. There is hardly a German who has not heard this word repeatedly, from their parents, in school, from their driving instructor, or their boss. They all stress, expect, demand Mitdenken. But what does Mitdenken mean?

Duden, one of Germany’s most prestigious dictionaries, offers a brief but complex definition: „etwas denkend bei einer Tätigkeit nachvollziehen.” Literally: “something thinking during a task comprehending.” 

Grammatically this formulation does not work in English. Its meaning, however, is: while you are performing a task, a job, an activity, be aware of how and why you are doing it, in the sense that you are recapitulating or reproducing in your mind how and why the task should be done in a certain way.

Duden also states: “nicht gedankenlos, sondern mit Überlegung vorgehen.“ This is easier to understand. Literally: “not thoughtless, but with Überlegung (consideration, reflection, thought, observation, deliberation) proceed.” In other words, think through carefully what you do while you are doing it.

A German online dictionary states: “think clearly about what is to be done; for this work we need someone, who can think-with; students should learn to think-with; we need young people who can think-with.”

Mitdenken is also defined as „etwas mit anderen Gedanken zusammen denken” – literally: “something with other thoughts combined think.” Meaning: to think about something while combining other thoughts with it.

Intelligent software

SAP is located in Walldorf, Germany, not far from Heidelberg. It is the world’s fourth largest software maker and the largest in Europe.

Founded in 1972, SAP initially created mainframe software for payroll and accounting. Over time it developed a single system capable of processing different types of data from different areas of complex companies. 

Today SAP offers a suite of business intelligence solutions which can extract highly relevant data from very large amounts of data, thus enabling sophisticated analysis, which in turn allows for intelligent decision making. 

Intelligent software for intelligent decision makers.

Oil change made easy

Hattinger Stahlbus GmbH has patented their oil drain, which makes draining automobile oil much easier. Their motto is: “The intelligent way to change you oil!” And it works like this:

“The stahlbus®-oil drain valve takes the place of the conventional drain plug. For the oil change, you unscrew the safety cap and attach the quick connect with the drain tube. Once this is connected the valve opens and the oil starts flowing into the catch. After disconnecting the drain tube, the valve closes automatically and you only need to install the safety cap.”

An intelligent solution to avoid spills and dirty hands. Made in Germany.