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Promising Directions

Syracuse University Establishes New Institute for Autonomous Systems Policy

May 6, 2019
Source: Syracuse University

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, multifaceted research. At Syracuse University’s inaugural Autonomous Systems Policy Symposium, Chancellor Kent Syverud today announces the establishment of a new institute devoted to research and teaching in this burgeoning and rapidly evolving field.

“The Autonomous Systems Policy Institute [ASPI] 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.

ASPI’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, 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 in 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 “highways” 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?

The symposium brings together a wide range of scholars, policymakers and industry professionals to deliberate three questions that will provide 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?

According to symposium keynote speaker Travis Mason ’06, vice president and head of regulatory and certification, Urban Air Mobility, Airbus, “The technology of autonomous systems has advanced far beyond the existing policy and legal frameworks at almost every level of government. Yet, the field of academic research into the policy implications is only just beginning to emerge.”

A review of offerings by major U.S. colleges and universities found fewer than 40 programs, centers or initiatives doing regular work in this area, mostly focused on transportation and aerial vehicles, and many from an applied standpoint. Few, or none, are focused on the full landscape of autonomous systems and the broader societal implications in the way that this new institute will be.

“In establishing this new interdisciplinary institute, we are making every effort to ensure that we not only leverage Syracuse University’s strengths in ways that will truly maximize their impact on the public good, but also match them to the most pressing challenges and the greatest unmet needs,” says Winders. “We see this as an opportunity and a responsibility to create an unparalleled experience for our faculty and students to immerse in cutting-edge research and to help shape the policy, legal and ethical frameworks guiding the proliferation of autonomous systems.”

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