The autonomous world is already here


​Autonomous machines are changing the world and the operating environment of humans and businesses. "When decisions are made about the future, the role of humans and ethics must be taken into consideration," says Heli Helaakoski, Principal Scientist at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland.

We are already living in an autonomous world, where systems are evolving to be increasingly autonomous. On the one hand, we are considering how to develop new autonomous systems and, on the other, how to protect ourselves from the potential threats they pose.

A good example of security threats caused by autonomous devices are drones, which halted air traffic at Gatwick Airport for 36 hours in December 2018, causing around a thousand flights to be cancelled and chaos for 140,000 passengers.

Multi-technological devices

The development of artificial intelligence and autonomy will introduce multi-technological devices that integrate large quantities of data from the surrounding environment into a machine and control it accordingly. Familiar examples include robot cars and service bots.

The creation of an autonomous system entity requires top experts from various fields. In Helaakoski's view, the development should involve not just technology and business expertise but also knowledge of ethics and legislation as well as the consideration of moral issues.

The key question is the role of humans

The colleague of the future will increasingly often be an autonomous system. Therefore, it is advisable to consider in advance how we will function together with autonomous machines. By combining medical and behavioural research with technology research, for example, we can help ensure that machines will be good workmates for us.

– We can still influence the design of autonomous machines, and the machines will not create anything that we have not programmed into them, Helaakoski reminds us.

Autonomy will change our operating environment

The investments made in autonomy are huge. The development will benefit some sectors, while others will suffer. Changes in the automotive industry, for example, will have a major impact on insurance needs, parking facilities, car ownership, repair shops and rental agencies. On the other hand, new business models will evolve.

Helaakoski believes that Finland's prospects are good, as we have excellent technical skills, which are the cornerstone for autonomous solutions. However, she thinks that we still need to learn how to combine different technologies more effectively, test them and come up with bolder visions. The development of technology, business and human-centred autonomous systems must advance as a whole. Ethical questions remain open and we must be involved in this discussion. This should not, however, be allowed to impede development.

Heli Helaakoski
Heli Helaakoski