IEEE Initiative Explores the Relationship Between Humans and Autonomous Systems

The group is working to establish a new field of science and explore the challenges of symbiosis

21 September 2017

Symbiotic relationships exist between different species. Some relationships provide benefits to one or both groups; others exist because neither group can survive on its own. In the symbiotic relationship between foxglove plants and bumble bees, for example, the former need the latter for pollination, while the latter need the former for nectar.

Today the term symbiotic relationship also can describe exchanges between people and autonomous systems such those in androids, exoskeleton suits, and self-driving cars.

As humans become more dependent on such systems and the machines start to make decisions on their own, their relationships are sure to be fraught with complications. To better understand the effect they likely will have on each other, IEEE in February launched its Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative. It has two goals: to address the inherent ethical, legal, and societal challenges and to establish the field of symbiotic systems science.

“Symbiosis is nothing new in the sense that the history of civilization has been characterized by the continuous interplay of people and their artifacts,” says IEEE Senior Member Roberto Saracco, cochair of the initiative. “In the coming decades, we will see progress in both the computerization of the world and in its digitalization. These two trends will strengthen one another and overlap, ushering in the age of symbiotic autonomous systems.”


The new initiative stems from a vision of a future whereby people and machines work independently but leverage one another’s abilities, according to Saracco.

“Symbiotic autonomous systems may be seen as a next step in the digital age,” he says. “The age of computers has fostered automation of many activities, and their performance has enabled the creation of new ones. The sheer number and variety of computerized and robotized objects will seamlessly morph into a fabric of connected objects—out of which an overall behavior will arise.”

“When the symbiosis involves a human being, and if it does not take into account the well-being of the human at all times—not deliberately but as a result of autonomous symbiosis conflicts—this will most certainly lead to legal and liability issues,” says IEEE Senior Member Raj Madhavan, the initiative’s other cochair. “It is thus imperative that ethical, legal, and societal implications are taken into account right from the design and development stages of SAS.”

As such, he says, the initiative is making a concerted effort to incorporate technologists’ and public policymakers’ viewpoints on how to identify gaps and barriers, as well as to initiate a dialog among stakeholders from industry, academia, and government.


The IEEE initiative’s Web portal contains information on publications, education, standards, and conferences.

Under the Education tab are several webinars given by Saracco and Madhavan. One webinar by Madhavan covers the ethical, legal, and societal considerations of robotics, automation, and artificial intelligence.

Saracco also writes a series of blogs on the building blocks that will make up the SAS technology.

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