From self-driving cars to drone delivery systems, from robotic underwater vessels to smart-home technologies, the increasing reliance on autonomous systems poses complex social, ethical and legal questions that demand interdisciplinary, multi-faceted research. At yesterday’s inaugural Autonomous Systems Policy Symposium, Syracuse University Chancellor Kent D. Syverud announced the establishment of a new institute devoted to research and teaching in this burgeoning and rapidly evolving field.

“The Autonomous Systems Policy Institute will leverage the policy leadership expertise of Syracuse University’s top-ranked Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. In concert with experts from across all of Syracuse University’s schools and colleges, the institute will address an urgent societal need while providing opportunities for research and student experiences that cross disciplines,” says Syverud.

School of Information Studies (iSchool) faculty member and sociotechnical researcher Ingrid Erickson participated in the symposium, sitting on a panel discussion covering the broader social implications of autonomous systems. Erickson has researched the ways that technology influences, shapes, defines, and enables forms of knowledge work

Erickson’s recent research has focused on post-organizational forms of work – roles such as independent workers, freelancers, and entrepreneurs. In particular, she has looked at the invisible work that independent workers do when they conduct their work outside or alongside of formal organizations, and without formal organizational identities.

With regard to autonomous systems, Erickson is interested in two facets. “First, how will people’s work practices need to change to accommodate collaborations with machines and artificial intelligence (AI),” says Erickson, “and what skills will you need to have to make these sociotechnical collaborations successful?”

“Another area of interest regards the rhetoric around AI and how automating routine processes will get rid of the ‘boring stuff’ and let humans do what they do best,” Erickson notes. “Or, another way of saying this is, AI, while fast developing, will not so readily impact areas that are ‘uniquely human.’ I’m curious what this ‘uniquely human’ territory is, and what role gender or other forms of diversity play in implementing those definitions.”

Participating with Erickson on the symposium panel were Suho Han, Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship at the Whitman School of Management; Nicol Turner Lee, Fellow, Center for Technology Innovation and Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution; and Andrew Maxwell, Senior Program Manager at C&S Companies.

The new Autonomous Systems Policy Institute’s approach to researching the societal impacts of autonomous systems is novel in two important ways: its true interdisciplinarity — across the social sciences, natural sciences, and humanities, as well as the professional schools such as engineering, information, law, communications, and business — and its broad definition of autonomous systems.

“Cities, social systems, laws, economies, nations, and ecosystems won’t adjust to new autonomous technologies one at a time. Instead, they will have to find ways to accommodate multiple autonomous systems — developing at different speeds and regulated in different ways — concurrently,” says Jamie Winders, Professor of Geography at the Maxwell School, who will direct the new institute. “The Autonomous Systems Policy Institute uses this complex mix as its starting point. We can’t effectively understand complicated issues by studying transformative developments in isolation. We can only offer effective solutions when we consider the complexity of those issues.”

Among other themes, the new Institute will address questions like: What and whose values should be baked into the artificial intelligence systems driving autonomous systems? Where should drone “highway” go, and what are the implications of such highways? In a world of autonomous vehicles, what should the legal definition of driver be? How can urban, suburban, and rural communities plan for the period of “cohabitation” of autonomous and piloted vehicles? What new social divides will the adoption of autonomous systems create, and what old ones might it help solve?

Yesterday’s symposium brought together a wide range of scholars, policymakers, and industry professionals to deliberate three questions that provided valuable insight to help inform the institute’s initial priorities: What are the most exciting, the most challenging, and the most pressing issues facing the public in the design, governance, and impacts of autonomous systems?

For more details on the symposium and speakers, view the symposium events page. For information on the new Autonomous Systems Policy Institute, visit the institute’s website.