Autonomous technology: Potential and challenges

By Rodrigue Anani *

Source: Huawei.com - Moving towards autonomous driving networks

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its recent progress created the breeding ground for the development of new technologies, including autonomous technology. By autonomous technology, we mean any technology that can function without the intervention of humans.

It is easy to confuse the terms autonomous, automatic, and automated, and even use them interchangeably. However, it is important to highlight that they do not mean the same thing. According to Scott Totman, Chief Technology Officer at LendingTree Inc,  “the easiest way to distinguish between autonomous and automated is by the amount of adaptation, learning and decision making that is integrated into the system.”

Automated systems typically run within a well-defined set of parameters and are very restricted in what tasks they can perform. The decisions made or actions taken by an automated system are based on predefined heuristics (rules or set of instructions).

An autonomous technology goes a step beyond an automated technology by being “intelligent” and having the capacity to manage itself. Today, autonomous technology has stopped being the content of science fiction and has many uses in daily life, such as transportation (autonomous vehicles), military (military drones, lethal autonomous weapons), the retail industry (e.g. Amazon Go), healthcare (surgical robots), etc.

Autonomous technology presents many advantages. In the case of transportation, the use of autonomous vehicles can reduce road accidents, traffic congestion, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, lower fuel consumption, make transportation more accessible, reduce travel time and transportation costs. According to the United States House Energy and Commerce Committee ranking member Frank Pallone, Jr., “Self-driving cars have the potential in the future to reduce deaths and injuries from car crashes, particularly those that result from driver distraction.” The use of autonomous cars also presents the advantage of reducing traffic congestion, which in turn will also reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. The Future of Driving report from Ohio University states that:

Since the software will drive the car, the modern vehicle can now be programmed to reduce emissions to the maximum extent possible. The transition to the new-age cars is expected to contribute to a 60% fall in emissions.

The same report further states:

Combining digital maps and other technological tools with driverless automobiles will result in the more efficient driving experience. As of date, congestion on roads is causing urban Americans to spend close to 7 billion hours per year on the road, waste 3.1 billion gallons of fuel, and incur losses of around US$160 billion due to traffic congestion.

Autonomous vehicles can make our roads safer, help reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and save money.

Autonomous technologies will also play a more significant and crucial role in military operations. There are already several military drones or unmanned aircraft. They can collect real-time surveillance information needed for a quick decision. They can be used in conflict-ridden areas where it would be perilous to send military personnel to carry out targeted attacks, thus saving lives and costs. Military drones are also crucial when it comes to supporting high-level missions such as intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and search and rescue.

Similarly, it is predicted that autonomous technology will impact the health industry. We can think of surgical robots, on-demand healthcare, etc. The Smart Autonomous Robotic Assistant Surgeon (SARAS) is a project that aims at enabling a single surgeon to execute operations. It is a cooperative and cognitive supervisory system able to infer the actual state of the surgical procedure from the sensing system and to act accordingly with the surgeon’s needs. Zipline is a company leveraging autonomous technology to provide medicines and the supplies necessary to save lives via drones. Zipline’s goal is to empower healthcare professionals to save lives through flexible and reliable shipping.

Even though autonomous technologies present tremendous potential and advantages, they also have some pitfalls.

Autonomous vehicles and drones, as described above, have many advantages. To work smoothly, they depend heavily on environmental conditions such as roads, weather, traffic, etc. Their sensors should work flawlessly, but that has not always been the case. There have been instances of the sensors used in cars malfunctioning in rainy or snowy conditions. As stated in the Future of Driving report:

California’s pilot program saw Google’s car suffering from one incident per about 1,250 miles. Volkswagen’s car faced an incident every 57 miles while Nissan experienced one incident every 14 miles.

The widespread use of driverless cars will raise new challenges. Who will be responsible in case of an accident? Should the cars be programmed to protect their passenger(s) or other drivers and pedestrians that might come into contact with the car? To what extent should they protect their passengers versus other people? How should those cars share road space with human drivers? What are the implications of driverless cars in terms of work? How many people will lose their jobs once they become widespread?

Similar questions arise when analysing the use of autonomous technology in military operations and health. For instance, who should be held accountable when a military drone hits the wrong target? What if the drone goes completely out of control? Do the existing regulations support the use of autonomous technology in the healthcare industry?

Because a scenario of zero risk does not exist, we must put in place the checks and balances that ensure we build a technology that is safe enough to use and which does not keep the human completely out of the loop.

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* Rodrigue Anani is a software engineer who has over five years of experience. Rodrigue is open-minded, pragmatic, and has a keen interest in building world-class solutions that have a positive impact on genuine and sustainable development. Rodrigue holds a Bachelor of Science in Information Technology from BlueCrest College, Ghana. He also holds a certificate in the “Internet of Things” delivered by the GSMA, and a certificate in Leading with Artificial Intelligence delivered by the Training Center of the International Labour Organisation and the Global Leadership Academy (GLAC). Mr. Rodrigue Anani has working experience and knowledge both in West Africa and North Africa countries.