A report on the social, legal and ethical issues surrounding autonomous systems has been published by The Royal Academy of Engineering with a focus on two emerging areas of technology that will have potential benefit to society – transport, in terms of autonomous road vehicles; and personal care and support, in the form of artificial companions and “smart homes”.

Autonomous systems, such as fully robotic vehicles that are “driverless” or artificial companions that can provide practical and emotional support to isolated people, have a level of self-determination and decision making ability with the capacity to learn from past performance. Autonomous systems do not experience emotional reactions and can therefore perform better than humans in tasks that are dull, risky or stressful. However they bring with them a new set of ethical problems. What if unpredicted behaviour causes harm? If an unmanned vehicle is involved in an accident, who is responsible - the driver or the systems engineer?

Autonomous vehicles could provide benefits for road transport with reduced congestion and safety improvements but there is a lack of a suitable legal framework to address issues such as insurance and driver responsibility. Report contributor Dr Chris Elliott FREng comments, “Our legal structures and ethical thinking are still in the age of automation – they have to catch up before our safety and quality of life can benefit from autonomous systems.”

The technologies for smart homes and patient monitoring are already in existence and provide many benefits to older people, such as allowing them to remain in their own home when recovering from an illness, but they could also lead to isolation from family and friends. Some users may be unfamiliar with the technologies and be unable to give consent to their use.

The report recommends engaging early in public consultation, for example engaging with older people on the use of technologies in their homes in order to understand their expectations and concerns, so that these can be addressed as the technologies are developed. It also highlights the need to establish appropriate regulation and governance so that controls are put in place to guide the development of these systems.

Lambert Dopping-Hepenstal FREng of the Academy’s Engineering Ethics working group comments, "The Royal Academy of Engineering is keen to encourage debate around the breadth ofsocial issues surrounding thedevelopments ofautonomous systems thatpromise great benefits in many aspects of life from healthcare to transport".

Professor Will Stewart FREng adds: “We expect to see a new generation of autonomous systems that will become tools that are in some respects almost like people; but will also pose some of the same ethical and management issues as people do. We expect great benefits - but also some new attitudes to our creations.”

Stories arising from this news release:

BBC News: Autonomous tech 'requires debate'

DailyMail: The robot revolution: Driverless trucks and voice-activated pets could be commonplace by 2019

Telegraph: Driverless vehicles 'could be on Britain's roads within 10 years'

Guardian: If an autonomous machine kills someone, who is responsible?

theengineer: Autonomous machines prompt debate

Reuters: Robot cats could care for older Britons

newscientist: Innovation: Are we ready for the Autonomous Age?

economist: Machines in Control

Notes for editors

  1. Autonomous Systems: Social, Legal & Ethical Issues was commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Engineering Ethics Working Group and is available online at  www.raeng.org.uk/autonomoussystems
  2. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

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or to receive a copy of the report please contact: Tonia Page, tel. 07770 845984