Home / Technology Policy & Ethics / November 2016 / Understanding the Societal Impact of Autonomous Technologies

Understanding the Societal Impact of Autonomous Technologies

By Raj Madhavan

November 2016

Autonomous technologies have a bit of a Hollywood problem.

Movies and TV shows have made it quite easy to talk about autonomous technologies such as robots, self-driving cars and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Hollywood has turned the topic into a dependable conversation starter in schools, in boardrooms, at dinner parties, etc., and that’s definitely a good, helpful thing for researchers in the space. 

At the same time, what Hollywood also has done is skew expectations. People see Terminator and expect robots to be able to do all sorts of complex and interesting things—when the reality of the technology today is that it is really, really hard to make a robot walk up a flight of stairs, much less carry out more involved processes to do chores around the house for a human.

The gulf between the public’s understanding, expectations and fears around autonomous technologies and reality in this space is vast. The confusion and concerns surrounding robots, self-driving cars, UAVs, etc. are substantial. In some circles, autonomous technologies are equated with job losses and all sorts of harmful, unintended consequences, but it is irrefutable that such systems have the potential to dramatically enhance quality of life around the globe. Actual developers of autonomous technologies have a responsibility to ground the public conversation in reality. 

And that is a large part of the reason for the launch of the IEEE Future Directions Committee incubation project, “Autonomous Technologies and Their Societal Impact.” By bringing together industry, academia and government via workshops and panel discussions around the world, our group is driving a multi-dimensional, comprehensive conversation rooted in the actual state of the art of autonomous technologies, as well as the potential benefits and concerns surrounding their ongoing innovation and proliferation.

Open, collaborative gatherings have been staged around the world to help ensure that the unique perspectives of different expertise and regions are represented in the conversation. Workshops took place 20 June 2016 in Ottawa, Canada and 2 September in Solna, Sweden, and a forum was scheduled on 13 October in Daejeon, Korea, to examine autonomous technologies in relation to the laws, regulations and issues found in North America, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region, respectively (but not exclusively).

Through the workshops, Autonomous Technologies and Their Societal Impact is working to help technologists and public policymakers identify gaps and barriers to technological progress and drive toward a mutually agreeable blueprint addressing concerns around privacy, security, safety and ethical issues. Findings will be presented in other forums of decision makers globally, and consideration will be given to the potential role of a standing IEEE Future Directions Committee initiative on Autonomous Technologies and Their Societal Impact and such a group’s opportunity to help drive technology for the benefit of humanity.

There are a number of ways for you to engage in the work of Autonomous Technologies and Their Societal Impact.

Over the course of the workshops, the group is developing a white paper documenting the state of the art with an emphasis on technology and public-policy issues voiced by the various stakeholders from around the world. The white paper is to be published toward the end of 2016 and made available at the IEEE Future Directions Committee’s website. We encourage your input, and we also seek your assistance in expanding the conversation. There might be pockets of individuals—maybe in the arts, for example—who have a particular stake in the development of autonomous technologies, and we want to do everything we can to ensure that the perspectives of such groups, no matter how far-fetched and disjointed they may seem, are not overlooked. 

The IEEE Future Directions Committee’s Autonomous Technologies and Their Societal Impact incubation project welcomes your voice in the global conversation about driving innovation in the space to everyone’s mutual benefit.

Dr. Raj MadhavanDr. Raj Madhavan
is Chair of the Autonomous Technologies and Their Societal Impact (ATSI) IEEE Future Directions Committee incubation project, founder and chief executive officer of Humanitarian Robotics Technologies, USA, and Distinguished Visiting Professor of Robotics at Amrita University, India. He can be contacted via email at raj.madhavan@ieee.org.


Dr. Ankur ChattopadhyayDr. Ankur Chattopadhyay is an Assistant Professor in the Information and Computing Sciences (ICS) department at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. Ankur is a computer scientist plus computer engineer, whose research work is focused on addressing privacy issues in video surveillance. He has a PhD in computer science from the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. His research interests include computer vision, pattern recognition, security, image processing & analysis and computer science education. He has published and presented in international conferences like ACM SIGCSE, IEEE CVPR and IEEE FIE. Ankur has more than ten years of experience in both academics and industry. As an academician, his passion is teaching computer science, conducting research in security and surveillance and applying his research to improve computer science education. His teaching interests include a wide variety of courses in computer science, especially in the area of security, programming and algorithms. His industry profile includes multiple roles such as IT analyst, software engineer and embedded systems engineer, having worked with Tata Consultancy Services for several years.