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Hyper Evolution: Rise of the Robots

Could machines built to enhance our lives one day become our greatest rivals?

About this series

Evolutionary biologist Dr Ben Garrod and electronics engineer Professor Danielle George explore whether machines built to enhance our lives could one day become our greatest rivals. Their investigations lead to lifelike robots and philosophical questions about awareness.

For more information on this series, you can head to the BBC programme page.

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

ben and Danielle with a robot

Copyright: Ed Cave - Windfall Films

Artificial Intelligence

The future impacts of A.I, from law, to the economy and society as a whole.

With the use of ever more artificial intelligence (AI) techniques in the computer mediated world around us, from robot vacuum cleaners to autonomous cars, intelligent voice bots to humanoid receptionists, how, if at all, should governments and lawmakers respond - and what should they be responding to? And how can businesses, as well as members of the public, best keep themselves informed about the extent to which advances in AI may impact on the economy, as well as our society?

An artistic impression of an artificial intelligence avatar.

A recent consultation by the UK House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence  has called for evidence on the economic, ethical and social implications of advances in artificial intelligence [call for evidence PDF ].

The consultation poses a range of questions in particular topic areas, such as the impact of AI on society and the public perception of it, as well as ethical considerations and the role of the government in responding to AI’s development and use.

For example, one question, targeted at experts in the field, asks “What is the current state of artificial intelligence and what factors have contributed to
this?”. Another, that could be answered by a much wider audience, seeks to explore the extent to which “efforts [should be] be made to improve the public’s understanding of, and engagement with, artificial intelligence” and how they should be pursued.


In many respects, the activities of the Open University have a role to play in such debates. BBC broadcasts such as the OU co-produced Hyper Evolution: Rise of the Robots  help inform the debate, describing recent advances to a wide audience, and the OU’s OpenLearn free learning resources provide a next step towards learning more.

Using questions such as the ones raised by the House of Lords Select Committee inquiry can help guide the independent learner in a variety of ways: firstly, by framing the issue in terms of a series of issues to be addressed; secondly, by considering the issue from a range of viewpoints (for example, “the public”, or “industry”). Posing a question also requires the respondent to think carefully about their response and communicate it effectively, which can help the respondent identify possible weaknesses in their own understanding of a topic if they struggle to articulate it well.


Inquiries also identify some key vocabulary or terms that can be used to inform further independent research. Responses submitted as part of the call for evidence are often published on inquiry websites, providing a primary source of opinion, rather than one mediated by any media reporting on the matter. The individuals and organisations that provide responses may also reveal themselves as potential “key stakeholders” or lobbying groups, along with an indication of the key areas of concern for them.

Questions don’t just appear as part of public inquiries, however: they also feature heavily as part of the assessment strategy in formal learning. (For anyone who has studied an OU course, the guidance provided on how to submit a response to the inquiry bears much similarity to the process of how to submit an assessment to an OU course.) Some questions are designed to assess specific matters of knowledge, such as identifying what equation to use to solve a particularly mathematical, engineering or scientific questions, and then demonstrating that you know how to apply it to find an answer.

But other questions are framed in much the same way as the Lords Select Committee questions: to tease out knowledge on a topic as well as critical reflection on it.

Whilst well designed assessment strategies are there to test a learner’s grasp of a subject area, they can also be used as a powerful learning support tool, helping direct you to convert your own knowledge and understanding of a topic in order to express a well-constructed argument based on it. Assessment questions aren’t there to intimidate you - they are set to allow you demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of a topic, and communicate that understanding in a directed way.


A CGI robot with an angular shaped head and body on motorised wheels

Naughty Robot: Where's Your Human Operator?

Rights for robots may still be some way off, but do we need robot laws? What happens When Robots Go Bad?

Jonty licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0 under Creative-Commons license

2013 report to the UN Human Rights Council  calling for a moratorium against the development of lethal autonomous robots got me pondering the state of "robot law"; that is, laws that regulate the operation of autonomous robots. While it's likely that we are still years away from having to ask the question "can a robot commit [a] murder?", an act that requires an intention to kill somebody else, laws are starting to emerge that regulate the use of autonomous vehicles on land and in the air.


Regulating Autonomous Vehicles

As the OU/BBC World Service co-produced Click radio programme  discovered, driverless cars are increasingly taking to the roads. OU emeritus professor John Naughton has also further observed that while the cost of producing a fully autonomous car may be so prohibitively expensive that it limits widespread adoption, robotic technologies that allow cars to operate in auto-pilot mode in certain conditions are likely to be increasingly commonplace (Do autonomous cars need to cost so much? ). So how is the law responding?

As far as state law goes in California , home to Silicon Valley and the many technology startups associated with it, there is an attempt to distinguish between "auto-pilot" driver support applications and fully autonomous operation:

An autonomous vehicle does not include a vehicle that is equipped with one or more collision avoidance systems, including, but not limited to, electronic blind spot assistance, automated emergency braking systems, park assist, adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, lane departure warning, traffic jam and queuing assist, or other similar systems that enhance safety or provide driver assistance, but are not capable, collectively or singularly, of driving the vehicle without the active control or monitoring of a human operator.

In contrast, an "autonomous technology" means technology that has the capability to drive a vehicle without the active physical control or monitoring by a human operator and "autonomous vehicle" means any vehicle equipped with autonomous technology that has been integrated into that vehicle.

Are we seeing signs here of "human law" versus "robot law", with distinctions made between humans and other autonomous (that is, self-regulating and independent decision-making) entities?!

Columbia State law  takes a similar tack, whereby “autonomous vehicle” means a vehicle capable of navigating district roadways and interpreting traffic-control devices without a driver actively operating any of the vehicle’s control systems, along with similar disclaimers about what does not constitute an autonomous vehicle. In addition, it defines a "driver" as "a human operator of a motor vehicle with a valid drivers licence."

So - autonomy kicks in when the human driver cedes continuous and active operation of the vehicle to the vehicle itself.

On the other hand, Columbia state law also requires that the vehicle:

  • "has a manual override feature that allows a driver to assume control of the autonomous vehicle at any time"
  • has a driver seated in the control seat of the vehicle while in operation who is prepared to take control of the autonomous vehicle at any moment";
  • and has a driver who "is capable of operating in compliance with the District’s applicable traffic laws and motor vehicle laws and traffic control devices."

Florida state law  considers the role of the operator in the following terms:

a person shall be deemed to be the operator of an autonomous vehicle operating in autonomous mode when the person causes the vehicle's autonomous technology to engage, regardless of whether the person is physically present in the vehicle while the vehicle is operating in autonomous mode.

If you would like to learn more about driverless car legislation in the US, it is tracked by The Center for Internet and Society  at Stanford.

Although also prescribing that while autonomous vehicles may only operate on public roads for testing purposes, "a human operator shall be present in the autonomous vehicle such that he or she has the ability to monitor the vehicle’s performance and intervene". However, that the definition of an operator suggests they need not be "physically present in the vehicle while the vehicle is operating in autonomous mode" is notable; such a statement also appears in the aforementioned California state law:

An "operator" of an autonomous vehicle is the person who is seated in the driver's seat, or if there is no person in the driver's seat, causes the autonomous technology to engage.



Regulating Drones

Steve Rhodes licensed for reuse under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 under Creative-Commons license

As well as concerning themselves with autonomous vehicles, US state legislatures have also been looking at regulations around autonomous and remotely controlled drones. Generally, legislation is being used to curb the use of drones for surveillance purposes. A recent Tennessee Senate bill , for example, declares that "[n]otwithstanding any law to the contrary, no law enforcement agency shall use a drone to gather evidence or other information", although exemptions are included relating to terrorism, searches effected under a warrant, or if "swift action is needed to prevent imminent danger to life".

While many legislatures are taking similar steps to limit the use of drones for surveillance, notwithstanding exclusions similar to the ones adopted by Tennessee, some are also pre-emptively restricting the "weaponisation" of drones, or as they are also referred to, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) (which is to say, "aircraft that are operated without the possibility of direct human intervention from within or on the aircraft"). So for example, in Massachusetts  a recent bill states "Any use of an unmanned aerial vehicle shall fully comply with all Federal Aviation Administration requirements and guidelines. Unmanned aerial vehicles may not be equipped with weapons" [my emphasis], Oklahoma  requires that "No person shall operate an unmanned aircraft system that contains, mounts, or possesses any lethal or nonlethal weapon or weapons system of any kind"; and North Dakota  declares "[a] state agency may not authorize the use, including grant a permit to use, of an unmanned aircraft while armed with any lethal or nonlethal weapons, including firearms, pepper spray, bean bag guns, mace, and sound-based weapons" [again, my emphasis].

If you would like to learn more about drone legislation being explored in the US, try the (admittedly partisan) Drone Legislation: What’s Being Proposed in the States? . As well as US state legislation, there is interest in development at the federal level too by the US Federal Aviation Authority Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Initiative . In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority publish guidance on Unmanned Aircraft and Aircraft Systems , while at the European level, work is underway to develop a European strategy for the development of civil applications of Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) .

However, not all states are following suit. If we look again at the Tennessee bill, we see that a drone is defined as a powered, aerial vehicle that: does not carry a human operator; uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift; can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely; can be expendable or recoverable; and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload [my emphasis].


Regulating Lethal Autonomous Robots

2 mins

"Robots decide whom to kill" - UN Special Rapporteur on summary executions

While the question of whether or not the weaponisation of drones should be outlawed appears to have a mixed response across US states, none of them (as yet) appear to have started to address the question of lethal autonomous robots; that is, robots whose autonomy extends to the "right" to make a kill decision (a determination to use lethal force, or more generally, a decision to use a weapon system against an identified target).

According to Christof Heyns in his May 2013 report to the UN Human Rights Council, Report of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, the use of autonomous robot warriors may have grave implications for our humanity:

"Lethal autonomous robotics (LARs) are weapon systems that, once activated, can select and engage targets without further human intervention. ... ...[T]heir deployment may be unacceptable because no adequate system of legal accountability can be devised, and because robots should not have the power of life and death over human beings. ... ..[Considerations made on the basis of International Humanitarian Law derive from] the belief that a human being somewhere has to take the decision to initiate lethal force and as a result internalize (or assume responsibility for) the cost of each life lost in hostilities, as part of a deliberative process of human interaction. This applies even in armed conflict. Delegating this process dehumanizes armed conflict even further and precludes a moment of deliberation in those cases where it may be feasible. Machines lack morality and mortality, and should as a result not have life and death powers over humans. This is among the reasons landmines were banned."


Traditional command responsibility is only implicated when the commander "knew or should have known that the individual planned to commit a crime yet he or she failed to take action to prevent it or did not punish the perpetrator after the fact." It will be important to establish, inter alia, whether military commanders will be in a position to understand the complex programming of LARs sufficiently well to warrant criminal liability.

For aficionados of dystopian near-future science fiction, elements of the report seem as if they might come straight from the pages of their latest read:

"For societies with access to it, modern technology allows increasing distance to be put between weapons users and the lethal force they project. ... Lethal autonomous robotics (LARs), if added to the arsenals of States, would add a new dimension to this distancing, in that targeting decisions could be taken by the robots themselves. With the contemplation of LARs, the distinction between weapons and warriors risks becoming blurred, as the former would take autonomous decisions about their own use."

Or how about this? "LARs present the ultimate asymmetrical situation, where deadly robots may in some cases be pitted against people on foot".

Thinking back to the case of civilian autonomous vehicles, where the responsibilities associated with driving a vehicle seem generally to lay with the operator, who is the responsible party when it comes to LARs making their own lethal force decisions? The report suggests that "Command responsibility should be considered as a possible solution for accountability for LAR violations. Since a commander can be held accountable for an autonomous human subordinate, holding a commander accountable for an autonomous robot subordinate may appear analogous..." However:

"Traditional command responsibility is only implicated when the commander "knew or should have known that the individual planned to commit a crime yet he or she failed to take action to prevent it or did not punish the perpetrator after the fact." It will be important to establish, inter alia, whether military commanders will be in a position to understand the complex programming of LARs sufficiently well to warrant criminal liability."

Accepting a lack of responsibility from a lack of technical understanding seems to me to be a very dangerous route to take. That said:

"It is an underlying assumption of most legal, moral and other codes that when the decision to take life or to subject people to other grave consequences is at stake, the decision-making power should be exercised by humans. The Hague Convention (IV) requires any combatant “to be commanded by a person”.

Once again we see the invocation of "humans" and "person[s]", with the implication that a person is also "a human". But do we need to start making explicit mentions of the involvement of "a human" party in the creation of legislation?!

While the report cautions against the use of phrases such as "killer robots", a term that appeared in the subtitle of the report LOSING HUMANITY: The Case against Killer Robots  from campaigners Human Rights Watch and the International Human Rights Clinic in November 2012, there is no doubt that the report expresses a cautionary message:

"There is clearly a strong case for approaching the possible introduction of LARs with great caution. If used, they could have far-reaching effects on societal values,... ... there is widespread concern that allowing LARs to kill people may denigrate the value of life itself. ... If left too long to its own devices, the matter will, quite literally, be taken out of human hands. ..."


jlmaral licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0 under Creative-Commons license

At this point, it is maybe also worth noting the report's comments about the legality of lethal autonomous robots and concerns about "the ability of the international legal system to preserve a minimum world order". This tension "come[s] on the heels of the problematic use and contested justifications for drones and targeted killing" as, for example, described by another UN Human Rights Council special rapporteur report on targeted killings  and an April 2013 US Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Drone Wars: The Constitutional and Counterterrorism Implications of Targeted Killing . (In the UK, an April, 2013, YouGov survey on British attitudes to drones  suggests that British sentiment towards drone attacks is mixed, although feelings about LARs were not referred to.) When addressing the ethics and legality of LARs, we need to clearly distinguish between the issues pertaining to their operation as autonomous entities in and of themselves, and a projection onto them of our own opinions relating to current policy surrounding the use of drones for targeted killing, notwithstanding the fact that LARs may also be used for targeted killings.

As far as Special Rapporteur Heyns' report goes, the recommendations call for "national moratoria on at least the testing, production, assembly, transfer, acquisition, deployment and use of LARs until such time as an internationally agreed upon framework on the future of LARs has been established".

In addition, the report suggests that a panel of experts from different disciplines "[p]ropose a framework to enable the international community to address effectively the legal and policy issues arising in relation to LARs, and make concrete substantive and procedural recommendations in that regard"; this expert panel should also provide an "[a]ssessment of the adequacy or shortcomings of existing international and domestic legal frameworks governing LARs".

It will be interesting to see whether there is an interplay between the various forms of "robot law" and the operation of autonomous machines as pertaining to autonomous vehicles and civilian drones and the report of any expert panel, if the recommendation to the UN Human Rights Council is followed and the panel convenes. Or conversely, the extent to which recommendations from the UN Human Rights Council feed into policy development and legislation at the national and local level.

What do you think about the way in which the law should treat robots? Should a human operator always be responsible for their actions, or should they been responsible for their own actions? In the latter case, if a robot acts irresponsibly, how should we treat it? And if robots are to have responsibilities, should they also have rights? Feel free to join in this very current debate in the comments below.

If you would like to learn more about robotics, you may consider studying the first-level course Technologies in practice from The Open University. If you are interested in design and engineering the future, you could look at the Open University's Engineering courses.


Meet the experts

A photograph of Tony Hirst
Tony HirstSenior Lecturer in Telematics, Department of ComputingVIEW FULL PROFILE
A photograph of Tony Hirst
Tony HirstSenior Lecturer in Telematics, Department of Computing

Tony has a background in electronics and artificial intelligence and maintains a current interest in societal (legal and ethical) impacts of robotics and intelligent systems. 

Tony is a the original author of the OU introductory short course Robotics and the Meaning of Life that included a history of robotics, an overview of how robotic systems (physical and computational) are designed; social, ethical, legal and political considerations associated with robots in society; contrasts with popular culture depictions of robots. He recently took over responsibility for the robotics section based on that course.

Tony also led the Creative Robotics Research Network that brought together academics, educators and members of the creative industries in exploring creative uses of robotics. He is also the convenor of the RoboFesta-UK educational robotics network from approx. 2001 to 2005, and organiser of the OU Robotics Outreach Group, delivering dozens of hands-on events to hundreds of participants in schools and at family events.

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