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Research issue in focus

Autonomy, autonomous systems and robots

Self-driving cars, humanoid robots or weapons independent of human control – these so-called autonomous systems demonstrate the enormous influence of artificial intelligence (AI) on our society. They make decisions, move independently and interact with us almost like social beings. In our research, we investigate the complex and dynamic relationship between humans and intelligent machines. Autonomous systems challenge us to question the supposedly reliable notions of autonomy, intelligence, consciousness and control.


What is an autonomous system?

In the context of AI, the term "autonomous" is mostly used to describe a computer-based system that performs complex tasks and to do so independently of human influence or control (to varying degrees). The individual steps in solving tasks are no longer prescribed or monitored by humans, but are chosen solely by the machine. For example, when a so-called autonomous vehicle is given a destination, the machine determines by itself the route, the speed or the driving manoeuvres it must execute according to the situation on the road.

What is the difference between autonomous and automatic systems?

The autonomous characteristics of a system are often understood as the next step towards automation, yet automatic systems originally were essentially about thinking ahead to all contingencies in the programming of a system. They can perform complex tasks, but they still follow the rules that humans have established. In other words, automatic systems are pre-programmed. Autonomous systems, on the other hand, are able to abstract patterns from unknown data (“machine learning”). They are programmed in such a way that they can also adapt step by step to what has not been determined in advance. This gives them the ability to adapt and act on their own.

What does the materiality of AI mean for the human influence on the autonomous system?

Autonomous systems are never fully self-driven (they are programmed by humans) or self-sustaining (they depend on energy sources and technical infrastructures). The term “autonomous system” is therefore somewhat misleading. The autonomous system has its own materiality (its hardware), which essentially determines what the system can do. Materiality also plays a major role in terms of the extent of human control: interfaces (screens, switches) determine how we interact with the system (speaking, gestures). These interfaces also offer us options for how to control the system – or can withhold such options from us. All these interactions determine to what extent humans are in the loop: Are humans part of the decision or not? When can humans intervene?

What cultural factors shape our understandings of AI?

AI is not a purely technical or abstract idea, rather the very notion is embedded in complex social and cultural contexts. The concept of autonomy alone – a concept that has been constantly renegotiated for centuries – shows how much our understanding of AI is shaped by European intellectual history. In addition, societal expectations and fears around AI are strongly linked to fictions and imaginaries (e.g. the representation of robots in popular culture). These cultural images have a strong influence on how we experience AI. Cultural comparisons, the kind we draw in our research, therefore sharpen our view of AI.

Videos from the HIIG Cosmos

lecture series

Iyad Rahwan: How to trust machines?

In our talk series making sense of the digital society, Iyad Rahwan discusses the psychological, social and political factors that shape our trust in machines.

Digitaler Salon

Machine Gun Learning (German)

In our Digitalen Salon, we discuss autonomous weapon systems in a field of tension between technological possibilities, political responsibility and legal implications.

Lecture series

Beate Rössler: Infrastructures of Autonomy

Autonomy is a multi-faceted concept. Recently, the term has gained renewed importance in the context of technological innovations such as drones, cars or robots.

Blog Posts on the topic ofutonomy, autonomous systems and robots

Man sieht mehrer Spiegel, die in unterschiedlichen Formen angeordnet sind und verschiedene Oberflächen, wie den Himmel, eine Hauswand und so weiter widerspiegeln. Das Bild steht sinnbildlich für die vielen verschiedenen Bedeutungen von autonomen Systemen in unserer Gesellschaft. You see several mirrors arranged in different shapes reflecting different surfaces, such as the sky, a house wall and so on. The image is emblematic of the many different meanings of autonomous machines in our society.

The age of machine autonomy?

Can machines be autonomous – or is it a human prerogative? This categorical question dominates many discussions on our relationship to purportedly intelligent machines. A human vs. machine rhetoric, however,...

LAWS | HIIG Science Blog

Autonomous weapons – reality or imagination?

How autonomous are autonomous weapons? Do they exist in reality? And in what ways do fictional characters like the Terminator shape how we think about this technology?