Are we ready for the Autonomous Age?

The UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering recently published a discussion document (pdf) on the social, legal and ethical issues surrounding the development and use of autonomous systems.

The document is the report of a roundtable discussion from a wide range of experts, looking at the areas where autonomous systems are most likely to emerge first, and discussing the broad ethical issues surrounding their uptake.

In publishing the report the Academy calls on the media and government to improve public awareness of the complex social, ethical and legal questions that autonomous systems raise.

But, asks Sumit Paul-Choudhury in The New Scientist, do we need this debate, or will it only delay the appearance of technologies that have a lot to offer?

“Although these systems should be far more reliable than their human equivalents, people may not be willing to forgive their rare mistakes, said Will Stewart, visiting professor at University College London and the University of Southampton, UK, at the report’s launch. There may be a “yuk factor” when something goes wrong, he says, with the mistakes of an autonomous surgeon, for example, seen as inhuman and revolting in a way that human failings are not.

Autonomous systems could also bring legal headaches. “The law is built around causes, and struggles with systems,” says Chris Elliott of Pitchill Consulting.”

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