Workshop: Autonomous Robots

Making robotic autonomy through science and law?

This document reports on the Epinet workshop on the making of robot autonomy, held in Utrecht 16-17 February 2014. The workshop was part of a case study focused on developments in this area, in particular, autonomy for assistive robots in care and companionship roles. Our participants were of relevant expertise and professional experience, including academic and industry robotics, law and ethics, vision assessment and socio-technical (STS) analysis. The workshop was intended to explore the expectations of robot autonomy amongst our participants, against a backdrop of recent policy views and research trends that are openly pushing an agenda of "smarter", more dynamic and more autonomous systems (e.g. European Commission, 2008; EUROP, 2009; Robot Companions for Citizens, 2012). In short, future robots should be designed for action in the home, in the streets, in care, at work and any other setting in which they can operate alongside humans and on behalf of them in assistive roles. Future robots should help address the grand societal challenges for Europe, in particular, those of an ageing population, sustainable healthcare and welfare.

Robotics development is intimately connected with visions of robot autonomy, however, as a practical achievement, autonomous robots remain till this day part real, part promise. Visions of robot autonomy are in part also based in fantastical depictions, in particular, any human-like intelligent appearances like those found in mythology, folklore and the science fiction genre (e.g. Hephaestus' golden assistants; the Golem; Asimov, 2004; Pixar Animation Studios, 2008). Ideas of robot autonomy are nevertheless powerful societally and culturally-specific visions, even if the very notion of "autonomy" is vague and inconsistent in recent accounts of future robots. These accounts still come together with considerable force in directing the efforts of researchers and experimenters, for example, in establishing funding priorities. They have a function in strategic planning for future developments and, thereby, for attending to particular scientific and technological problem domains. Accounts of future robots are also informing and shaping the efforts of legislators, ethicists and lawyers. To that effect, one can say that there is an official vision of future robots, a yardstick with which everyone implicated in robotics development has to measure their expectations.

With these considerations in mind, our workshop proceeded by addressing thematically defined areas of interest to our case study:

  • Robot autonomy: which perspectives are endorsed to shape and develop the [official] vision?
  • Robot autonomy: which perspectives shape ethical and legal frameworks?
  • Future robotics: who should participate, and which knowledge-domains should be included to shape policy visions?


Download the Workshop Report