Autonomous Machines


by Kathi, Caro, Sophie and Lea

You may know it from futuristic science fiction shows: Since many years filmmakers and film fans from all over the world have been fascinated by involving futuristic machines, like the android „Data“ from „Star Trek“, the garbage disposal robot „Wall-E“ from the equally named Disney movie or the self-driving car in „Total Recall“, in movies. But are autonomous systems and machines like we know it from those movies actually a thing? Or are they nothing more but the fantasy of science fiction fans?

Of course there are limits to what´s possible for science nowadays. But many machines that work autonomously are reality today!

But what is an „Autonomous machine“ after all?

The definition of „Cambridge Dictionary“ sais that „an autonomous machine or system is able to operate without being controlled dyrectly by humans“. So it´s all about machines that don´t need a human to controll them, that are independent and able to make their own decisions.

One can imagine that the opinions on such inventions are controversial. On the one hand there are people who celebrate every new invention as one step towards a great and developed future. But on the other hand there are plenty of people who see dangers in machines that aren´t controlled anymore and who want to maintain the possibility for humans to take control.

This could be seen quite clear in the survey we did. We asked random people from different age and gender about their opinion about autonomous systems: Many people said that they could definetly imagine using those, and most people were aware oft he benifits that autonomous machines could have in various areas of our daily life. But the one thing, that almost everyone said was, that they could imagine autonomous systems being a part of their daily life, as long as they had the power to take control.

In the following paragraphs we will inform you about three sections, in which autonmous systems are already used, or seem have a great future.       

Autonomous vehicles – the mobility of our future?

Since the 1990s car engineers and technicians have been working on driver assistance systems. In the next decade, the car industry will most likely change more drastically than it has over the past 30 years. Today we are standing at the entrance to a new era – of highly automated driving. Now you may ask yourself what autonomous driving exactly means. A self-driving car is an independent vehicle that is capable of sensing its environment, moving safely and targeted in real traffic with little or no human input. Autonomous vehicles combine a variety of sensors to perceive their surroundings. In addition to cameras, these passive systems also include laser, ultrasonic, radar and lidar sensors for distance measurement and for processing further information from the vehicle´s surroundings. Advanced systems interpret sensory information to identify appropriate navigation paths, as well as obstacles and relevant signage. What are the advantages and disadvantages of driverless cars?

On the one hand, there are economic benefits. Once autonomous cars are fully integrated within our transport systems, experts project that the economic benefits to society will be significant. Accidents can cost a country billions per year, so even a little decrease in the amount of crashes will save millions of dollars each year. Then there are social benefits as well since many lives will be saved. Most of the road fatalities are caused by human errors such as speeding, driving under the influence of substances and distractions occurring within and outside the vehicle. By removing manual driving controls from humans, autonomous vehicles should erase all fatalities involving human error. Moreover, many people who have restricted mobility as a result of age or disability have new possibilities. With fully automated cars, drivers’ licenses or tests are no longer needed. This means that people who have been considered a risk in the past traffic will receive access to driving tecnology without putting themselves or others in danger. Furthermore, we would have quicker commute times with autonomous cars being able to sense other cars around them and communicate with them. In addition, automatic braking functions will not only prevent crashes but will also allow driverless cars to travel at consistent distances from one another. Consequently, speed limits will also be increased as the probability of vehicles crashing will be greatly reduced.

On the other hand, criminal hacking, computer crashes or glitches can occur. Like all computer systems, autonomous cars would be programmed to run in a certain way, but with all the automated systems there is always a risk of the computer being hacked or crashing due to a glitch or error. No system is infallible and if a hacker was able to get into the car’s software, they could potentially reprogram the car to do any number of things. Moreover, sometimes there are no good choices for a driver to make. For instance, if a person suddenly walked out into the road right in front of the car, this would leave no time for the car to apply the brakes before a collision happened. The driver might then have the choice of either hitting the person or swerving the car off to the side into a concrete barrier. The difficult question of which actions a driverless car should be programmed to do in this instance is one that leaves everyone feeling divided. Besides, there are some people that are dreading the takeover of autonomous vehicles. This includes those that make their living operating transport vehicles, like taxi or truck drivers. Replacing human controlled driving will see these people in need of new employment.

In my view, in light of the projections for the positive impact autonomous cars will have on the environment, economies and personal safety, it may take some time before we see the expected benefits of the technology, but I am very sure they will reach us and also outweigh the potential risks. Autonomous driving will be part of everyday life for many vehicle users in 10 to 15 years as automobile companies have presented corresponding prototypes already, some of them several years ago.

Still, the legal framework for autonomous driving is complex and yet unsettled. This also applies to the algorithmically controlled driving strategy in case of accidents. How do you feel about this topic? Let me know in the comments!

Autonomous machines in medicine

Another sector, in which autonomous systems might have an important role in the future is medicine.

In hospitals nurses are miracle workers, but they are also overworked and chronically short on time. Robotic experts believe that an autonomous robot could be a solution and could soon be a part of hospitals and care homes. They could take a patient’s pulse, scan vital signs or set injections.               

In addition, assistent systems can be used in surgeries. Surgeons are supported by computer-based systems to prevent nerves or blood vessels from being destroyed. This use of machines makes doctors work more effectively and increases the patient safety.

In the future, operations will no longer be performed openly but only minimal invasive with robot-controlled systems.

During the surgery the doctor sits a few meters away from the patient and controls the operation with a controller like in a computer game. It seems like you’re sitting inside of the patient –  what seems unbelievable.

Thereby the autonomous machines offer great potential for our society and revolutionise the practise of medicine. But is this the beginning of a robot apocalypse and can these robots make us immortal?

One one hand it is important that we do not have to be dependent of the assistent systems. They are supposed to be a support for the doctors and can relieve difficulties, where you have to work accurately. Moreover the autonomous machines are not that advanced that they could take over the full part of surgeons. The robots make the handling of surgeries easier and could reduce the death rate due to the precision of the autonomous machines.

Although the systems are safe and confidential, the biggest barrier is that people do not trust the modern techniques, which was also shown by the surveys we did. They feel scared and insecure, because they have the fear that humans will lose the control over the autonomous machines. Doctors and caretakers still need the upper hand over the machines, because technique must not surpass human abilities and human power.

Particularly people in care homes need interpersonal contact and need to communicate with other people, because they would feel lonely when just machines take care of them. They need the proximity of other people and must be helped when they are in need. Therefore caretakers should not be replaced by robots.

When autonomous machines take over the job of caretakers and nurses, they would lose their job and be unemployed. On the other hand there is a shortage of caretakers so the use of robots would be a good reason to support and relief them. For example they could serve meal or sterilise surgical instruments.

However, the medical technique and machines are important and irreplaceable in our today´s society and for our future. For example they simplify the operation of the removal of cancer or they can diagnose diseases by using certain algorithms.

Moreover they can take over heavy physical operations and duties, which has a great potential for our future and could make our life easier.

Maybe in the future we will only be operated by robots or body parts will be replaced by robot technology? We will see.

Unmanned weapons Systems: Out of control or a guarantee for peace ?

In the course of the technological development, unmanned weapon Systems such as drones an autonomous fight u-boats become more and more reality in todays national/international politics and wars.

Although, according to our surveys, most people are rather skeptical if one can trust these new weapon systems, big nations like USA and russia are already fostering the progress in autonomous weapon systems and are in the middle of their testing phase before actually using their technologies in wars. For instance, in 2018 the USA already had an autonomous fight boat called ,,Sea Hunter”, wich is able to carry on rides for months and to sink enemy boats independently with integrated weapon systems. And the USA is not the only nation, who is taking advantage in the new weapon technologies; Israel is using autonomous missile defense systems and russia is in possession of autonomous armors and guns wich can independently identify the target and shoot the shot. So it is evident that the trend of unmanned weapon systems is a global affair and irreversible!

Therefore the global question arises if unmanned weapon systems are saving more lifes or whether it makes it easy to instigate global wars that will demand far more innocent victims.

One can readidly say that autonomous weapon systems are remarkably reducing the danger the soldiers are put in everyday. A drone is not only distinctly faster in the decision making process and easier to operate than, as an example, a fighter plane.

In a dogfight, a drone could react and fight a target faster than a human pilot. They combine reconnaissance and weaponry optimally and can thus perform precise fast air attacks. Furthermore, a drone is overall much cheaper for the state to use because it does not have to be designed to protect the pilot and it offers a sinking risk for the civilian population to become victims of an attack due to the system’s precision.

Although, unmanned weapon systems seem to create a safer environment not only for soldiers but also for the unconcerned civillian population, it is still undisputed that these autonomous systems push the slow humans out of the decision cycle and act more and more independently. So before giving unmanned weapon systems a fixed place in wars, one should overthink this decision because it can be dangerous to award kill decisions to algorithms and machines who can independently act.

Through autonomous weapon systems the person who is responsible dissociates emotionally from the process of deciding to kill someone to the process of actually killing these people. If the person commanding these drones does not see through his/her own eyes what war and killing someone is like, it is easier for this commanding person to cross the moral frontier of killing people. For these people the targets are only coordinates. Therefore, from an ethical point of view, we should continue to burden the soldiers, who are actually at the spot. Moreover, due to the physical distance from the weapon, it is possible for global players to participate in national crises.

In conclusion one can say that there certanly are great chances that autonomous systems will – in various areas – play an important role in the coming years, and that there will be benefits for many people. But, no matter in which area, there are difficulties and dangers, that necessarily have to be discussed and overcome, before autonomous systems can be a secure and reliable assistance for us.

Furthermore, we have to make sure, that we as humans will always have the power and superior role towards machines, and that, no matter how much technic and science improves, we keep in mind that machines exist to make our lifes easier. As soon as we feel like we are overruled by the seemingly endless power and energy of a machine we have to remind ourselves that we are the ones who should have the power. Because afterall the machines serve us – not the other way round.

8 Antworten auf „Autonomous Machines“

  1. Your Blogpost has a good structure, is easy to read and provides many information. I like that you show diffrent views of the possibilities of autonomus machines and deal with the fears of some humans

    but it was written by Kathi:(

  2. Many exciting points! While talking about surveys and facts, it would have been great including your sources and giving examples. Furthermore, I do not agree with a couple points you made. As example, give me a reason why technology or machines shall never surpass human ability. Human ability is garbage and it is assumptious to declare human superiority. Mankind greatest achievements were only made possible with the tools we developed. We should use all tools available to reach for the stars!

    1. Moin Jakob,
      Thank you for your comment but I vehemently disagree with your assumption that human ability is garbage. Of course, we should use all tools available in order to reach the stars but especially in the course of unmanned weapon systems it is important to prevent that algorithms and machines decide for us wether a human being should be killed or not.

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