The Evolving Relationship Between Humans and Autonomous Systems

White paper identifies enabling technologies, and implications for society

8 May 2018

As we become more dependent on self-driving cars, robots, and other autonomous systems, our bond with them is bound to increase. And the exchanges between people and machines, in what are called symbiotic autonomous systems (SAS), are expected to get more complicated as the machines start making decisions on their own.

To better explain the impact of the relationships, the IEEE Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative in November released a white paper that describes the role that technology is likely to play, along with fictional scenarios that show how seamlessly such tools could be integrated into our lives. The document also outlines actions to be taken to lessen the impact of SAS on society.

“We will be responding to the behavior of machines, and machines will be responding to our behavior,” the authors write. “It will become progressively more difficult to distinguish the cause and effect between the two.”

RELATED: IEEE Initiative Explores the Relationship Between Humans and Autonomous Systems


Several technologies already play roles in SAS. The white paper groups them into three areas of capability: advanced interactions, self-evolving, and autonomous decision-making.

Advanced interactions are enabled by sensors, actuators, and devices that augment what human beings can do. Examples include materials laden with sensors to make them appear smarter, microelectromechanical systems in robots, and brain-machine interfaces that improve memory.

Autonomous systems still must evolve in their decision-making and improve their perception, comprehension, and planning capabilities. Self-driving cars, for example, will need to identify objects in their surroundings and understand their characteristics, like telling the difference between a stationary light pole and a pedestrian at a crosswalk who could dart off in any direction. The enabling technologies here include awareness algorithms, computer vision, and machine learning.

Another crucial aspect of any autonomous system is its ability to make decisions in real time. Decision-making technologies rely on perception, awareness, recognition, learning, planning, and reasoning. To execute actions, preloaded data would be combined with data processes to create awareness of and interactions with other autonomous systems, as well as with human beings.

The paper notes that the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is funding several decision-making research projects. One is for drones and another for autonomous boats.


Four fictional scenarios in the white paper describe how easily current and future autonomous systems could find their way into commonplace situations. A “day in the life of a worker” scenario, for example, describes bionic body parts that improve a person’s strength and performance. A smart-cities scenario explores how the Internet of Things can help with traffic, public transportation, and the power grid. A section on factories explains how 3D printers can be applied in various ways, especially for erecting office buildings and other large structures. It also describes how retail stores can offer augmented-reality devices to customers so they can see variations of products. And in a disaster-relief scenario, cyborgs could rescue people while self-repairing natural-gas systems prevent explosions.


The document lays out ethical, legal, and societal implications of SAS. There has been much talk about how the systems can improve people’s lives, but potential negative impacts are not as well understood. The authors address them.

“It is imperative that ethical and society-centric implications are taken into account right from the design and development stages,” the authors write.

Regulation and governance are essential, the authors say. The IEEE’s initiative is making a determined effort to incorporate viewpoints from technologists and public policymakers. It wants to promote a dialog among stakeholders from academia, government, and industry. And there’s a need for technical standards and safeguards, as well.

A key concern, the authors say, is that the systems be available to everyone.

“The SAS Initiative views this white paper as a call to all IEEE societies and councils to join forces in this exciting and impactful area, since they have the resources and capabilities needed to lead,” the authors write. “Resources include standards, education, and cutting-edge research and innovation.”

You can download the document for free.

The initiative is holding several conferences and workshops where you can learn more about the technologies.

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