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Research 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.


The autonomous properties of a system are often understood as the next step to automation. Automated systems have essentially been about thinking ahead to all contingencies in the programming of a system. While they can perform complex tasks, they still follow the rules that humans have established. Autonomous systems, on the other hand, are able to abstract patterns from unknown data ('machine learning'). They are programmed to adapt step by step even to what has not been determined in advance. This gives them more ability to adapt and act.

The human influence on autonomous systems
Autonomous systems are never fully self-controlled (they are programmed by humans) or self-sustaining (they depend on an energy source and technical infrastructures). The term autonomous system is therefore somewhat misleading. The autonomous system has its own materiality (its 'hardware'), which quite significantly determines what the system can do. But this 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). They also provide us with options on how to control the system - or can withhold them from us. All of this determines the extent to which humans are 'in the loop' - are they part of the decision, does it happen independently, when can they intervene?

What cultural factors shape our understanding of AI?
AI is not a purely technical or abstract idea, but 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, such as those we make in our research, therefore sharpen our view of AI.

From the HIIG Channel

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From the HIIG BLOG

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.

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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,...

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