Autonomous systems has received 63 of 560 total votes on our first annual poll of Emerging Ethical Dilemmas and Policy Issues in Science and Technology! We are featuring the items on our list in order of their vote totals throughout 2013.

It's not too late to vote!

Autonomous Systems


Machines (both for peaceful purposes and for war fighting) are increasingly evolving from human-controlled, to automated, to autonomous, with the ability to act on their own without human input. Autonomous systems will continue to emerge in a number of areas in the coming decades, from robots on the battlefield, to autonomous robotic surgical devices. As these systems operate without human control and are designed to function and make decisions on their own, the ethical, legal, social, and policy implications have grown exponentially. Who is responsible for the actions undertaken by autonomous systems? If robotic technology can potentially reduce the number of human fatalities, is it the responsibility of scientists to design these systems?

There are more technical issues to consider as well, such as software reliability and predictability. How can we test these systems to insure that they will not behave in a potentially dangeous way in a situation and set of circumstances we had not thought of? This is especially worrisome in the case of lethal force.

ETNSI image

Click here to see more about the Reilly Center's Emerging Issues of National Security and intelligence (ETNSI) research initiative, gathering and the ethical, legal, and policy implications of their employment.


News, books, and reports on autonomous systems

Autonomous Military Robotics: Risk, Ethics, and Design (Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group)
Coral-bots to repair world's reefs
FDA Investigating Potential Problems with Popular Surgical Robot
DARPA's robot changes tire, aspires to defuse bombs
Department of Defense Directive (Autonomy in Weapons System) 
Faith-based organizations oppose lethal use of drones
Freed From Its Cage, the Gentler Robot
Humans Can Feel Empathy Toward Robots
Navigating the Legality of Autonomous Vehicles
Robots at War: Scholars Debate the Ethical Issues
Study Shows That Humans Attribute Moral Accountability to Robots
Wired for War, by Peter Singer

Opinion Pieces

Don't fear the robo-apocalypse, yet
Raging (Again) Against the Robots
Smart Drones
The Ethical War Machine: Can a robot win hearts and minds?
Why robots are ready for takeoff
With Drone Warfare, America Approaches the Robo-Rubicon

The "killer robot" debate

HRC's Campaign to Stop Killer Robots
US must impose moratorium and seek global ban on killer robots
What Human Right's Watch's "Case Against Killer Robots" Gets Wrong About Military Reality 

Organizations devoted to the study of autonomous systems

ARC Centre of Excellence for Autonomous Systems
Autonomous Systems and Robotics at University of Salford
Autonomous Systems Lab (ASL) at the University of California at Santa Cruz
Centre for Autonomous Systems (CAS) at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm
Centre for Autonomous Systems Technology at the University of Liverpool
Consortium for Emerging Technologies, Military Operations, and National Security
Cornell University Autonomous Systems Lab
Office of Naval Research (ONR) Intelligent and Autonomous Systems
Intelligent Systems Lab Amsterdam (ISLA) at the University of Amsterdam
International Society for Military Ethics
Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research, Naval Research Laboratory)
Lincoln Centre for Autonomous Systems Research (L‐CAS)
Micro Autonomous Systems and Technology (MAST), U.S. Army
UPM Autonomous Systems Laboratory
Virginia Center for Autonomous Systems
Vision and Autonomous Systems Center (VASC)


Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) You Tube Channel

NOVA's "Rise of the Drones"
Robot Demonstrations (via Peter Singer)


Robert Latiff

Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Robert Latiff

In his recent op-ed (co-authored by Patrick McCloskey), ETNSI member and Reilly Fellow Latiff discusses the development of weapons with full lethal autonomy as crossing a moral Rubicon.

"Time is running out for military decision makers, politicians and the public to set parameters for research and deployment that could form the basis for national policy and international treaties. The alternative is to blindly accept as inevitable whatever technology offers. Let's not be robotic in our acquiescence."


Patrick Lin

Patrick Lin

Lin is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Cal Poly (as well as the Director of their Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group) and a member of the Reilly Center's ETNSI research initiative. He is the lead editor of Robot Ethics and has published extensively in the field of technology ethics, especially the areas of military technologies, robotics, human enhancement, and nanotechnology.

"Pain Rays and Robot Swarms: The Radical New War Games the DOD Plays" The Atlantic

“The Big Robot Questions” Slate

“Drone-Ethics Briefing: What a leading Robot Expert Told the CIA” The Atlantic

"Programming aside, the use of robots must also comply with existing law and ethics. And again, those rules and norms may be unclear or untested with respect to robots. For instance, the use of military robots may raise legal and ethical questions that we have yet to fully consider and that, in retrospect, may seem obviously unethical or unlawful."


Big Dog, created by Boston Dynamics and funded by DARPA



Precision Urban Hopper
Sandia National Laboratories developed these shoebox-sized, GPS-guided, unmanned ground robots.