What are the challenges for the development of autonomous systems?

New research by the National Engineering Policy Centre, led by the Royal Academy of Engineering, has identified the key challenges and opportunities that autonomous systems present and how the engineering community can work to ensure responsible innovation.

The technology enabling autonomous systems is advancing at pace, from self-driving cars and nuclear maintenance robots to drug delivery and diagnostics, long-distance shipping and protection from cyberattacks.

Autonomous systems are set to enable a productivity and export boost for the UK and could help to provide wide economic and social benefits, such as replacing monotonous, unrewarding and/or dangerous tasks.

Engineering plays a critical role in ensuring that the autonomous solutions adopted are safe, unbiased and designed to deliver on currently unmet needs.

The National Engineering Policy Centre consulted members of the public, engineers, policymakers and regulators about their expectations of autonomous systems and the role that engineers should play.

The findings identify the key challenges and opportunities that autonomous systems present and how the engineering community can work to ensure responsible innovation.

The challenges identified are:

 Safety and ethics of autonomous systems - image courtesy of The National Engineering Policy Centre and Royal Academy of EngineeringImage courtesy of The National Engineering Policy Centre and Royal Academy of Engineering

Technical – new validation and verification methods are required alongside simulation and real-world trials to be able to assure the safety and certainty of a system’s capabilities.

Professional responsibility –the right standards and codes of practice are needed to drive culture change in light of new challenges posed by autonomous systems, and these must evolve as best practice emerges.

Regulation – where regulation is required to enforce standards should be carefully considered. A leading, agile and responsive UK regulatory system that can connect across the regulators of many sectors is required as autonomous systems become more widespread.

Oversight – as autonomous systems are deployed in increasingly large and more complex environments there will be liability and authority issues. There needs to be governance in place to judge if the uncertainty and risk a system creates justifies the benefits it brings.

Public acceptance –There should be greater public involvement before new autonomous systems are deployed, to build trust between individuals and the service providers.

Ethics – There must be mechanisms in the design process that enable collective, re­flective, transparent decision-making to resolve uncertainty, address the lack of human oversight and inform how autonomous systems are deployed.

The National Engineering Policy Centre will now explore and test these conclusions, focusing on specific sectors including transport and healthcare.

It will consider the unique ways in which autonomous systems are developing in each sector, the specific challenges to safe and ethical deployment, and seek to identify emerging good practice.

The full briefing is available here.