Autonomy

Learn about the difference between automation and autonomy, levels of initiative, shared autonomy, and bounded rationality

Autonomy in robotics means computation autonomy but many people think autonomy means political autonomy. Computational autonomy refers to the capability to independently perform a task, whether the task is performed without any supervision, is permitted any initiative to modify the constraints on how to perform the task, or is permitted to modify the task (also called levels of initiative). Political autonomy is the “you’re not the boss of me” connotation of autonomy probably best exemplified by Gort in the original The Day The Earth Stood Still. The choice of the word autonomy for robots came about because autonomy has been used in engineering since the days of the fly ball governor or centrifugal governor, which enabled the Industrial Revolution. The fly ball governor was autonomous in that it controlled steam engines without human intervention, but it was not politically autonomous. In robotics, there is a difference between automation and autonomy as they represent different modeling assumptions- the difference is somewhat akin to using cartesian or spherical coordinates in calculus or using model-based or neural networks in computer vision. While robots can perform factory automation tasks, like welding, robots rarely are complete the entire process by themselves. For example, most self-driving cars expect the owner to step in from time to time, specify where to go, etc. That is often called shared autonomy, with overlaps with teleoperation and human-robot interaction is critical. That also explains why studies such as the 2012 Defense Science Board study on autonomous systems recommended considering autonomy as an enabling capability: that you wanted to formulate the problem as “what functions do you want the robot to do (e.g., take over navigation and flying and alert the pilot so that the pilot can focus on target recognition and scene understanding)” versus “I want an autonomous plane.” While computer programming for AI has produced unintended consequences, they never exceeded their bounds (bounded rationality)- the bounds were just poorly stated. So a robot would not take over the world or start the uprising unless it was programmed to, but a great deal of science fiction has been devoted to whether robots would have sufficient self-awareness to merit (or demand or take) political autonomy.  Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama is an excellent start to explore how a robot spaceship could be autonomous (behavioral intelligence) but without deliberative-level or social intelligence or politically autonomous. 

April 8, 2019

Balancing Accounts is a solid short story, sort of a combination of the hard science of Vernor Vinge, the economic capitalism of Charlies Stross’ Saturn’s Children, and the robot's POV from Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries (though there is no snarky humor- this is more...

April 1, 2019

Balancing Accounts is a solid short story, sort of a combination of the hard science of Vernor Vinge, the economic capitalism of Charlies Stross’ Saturn’s Children, and the robot's POV from Martha Wells’ Murderbot Diaries (though there is no snarky humor- this is more...

December 16, 2018

Recommendation: Read it! The science is as good as it was in The Martian, so enjoy life on the Moon with robots as they show off well-designed morphology and variations of autonomy. 

Robots: non-anthropomorphic ground robots

With his second book, Artemis, Andy Weir has e...

September 24, 2018

Recommendation: Watch it for the art school visuals but turn the sound off and make up your own version of what’s going on—your plot will be better and more interesting.

Automata is the 2014 movie by Spanish director and auteur Gabe Ibáñez.  Antonio Banderas is NOT the...

July 25, 2018

Recommendation: Add Mockingbird to your must read list, especially if you are in the mode for a less violent, more intellectual dystopian view of the post-scarcity world or if you are a bit annoyed with everyone demanding to be treated as a special snowflake. Because a...

July 12, 2018

Robots: Humanoid

What it gets right about robotics: the complexities of computer vision and natural language communication.

Recommended reading: don’t let the reviews about robot sex make you think this is a fembot soft porn novel; it’s a thoughtful book about humans and...

June 25, 2018

What it gets right about robots: Direction perception as the foundation for intelligent behavior. 

Recommendation: Read this lesser known book of how an alien generation ship could be plausibly controlled using the same biological robot paradigm as a Roomba.

Rendezvous W...

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Index:

For further reading:

  • Chapter 3: Autonomy and Automation, Introduction to AI Robotics, 2nd Edition, R. Murphy,  MIT Press 2019 (available Aug)

  • Chapter 4: Software Organization of Autonomy, Introduction to AI Robotics, 2nd Edition, R. Murphy,  MIT Press 2019 (available Aug)

  • The Role of Autonomy in DoD. Defense Science Board study (2012).