Hasta la vista baby: is it time to terminate the term ‘autonomous systems’?

In a new paper published in AI & Society: Knowledge, Culture and Communication, the TAS Functionality Node’s Helen Smith, Kerstin Eder and Jonathan Ives argue that using the term ‘autonomous’ to describe the capabilities of highly automated systems is misleading at best.

Drawing on examples from widely-know science fiction, the Cyberdyne Systems Model T-800 depicted in the Terminator and Terminator 2 films is presented as a great example of an adaptive system that demonstrates evolving functionality and decision-making. However, the authors observe that it can hardly be defined as autonomous when its overall goals and limitations are set by another agent, removing autonomy or ‘freedom of choice’ from its functionality.

The authors look at the implications of describing a system as autonomous, since in doing so we would be assigning moral agency to it. On this basis, the expectation would be that a system is a moral agent and therefore can be held responsible for bad decisions, which is simply not feasible (‘a computer cannot be fined or put in jail when a bad decision is made’ (Dignum et al, 2018, p.63)).

The authors conclude that the correct use of language to describe critical systems is vital to ensure responsibility for the systems’ decisions and actions is attributed to those designing, developing and operating these systems, rather than the systems themselves.

More information

Read the full paper: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00146-023-01662-9

This paper was led by Dr Helen Smith, a Research Associate in Engineering Ethics and Registered Nurse based in the Centre for Ethics in Medicine at the University of Bristol. Helen works as part of the TAS Node team bringing her expertise in the ethical and legal challenges of AI use in healthcare (and beyond).

Masterclasses in Swarm, Soft and Aerial Robotics

Please note the event dates have passed.

Organised by the UKRI Trustworthy Autonomous Systems (TAS) Node in Functionality on behalf of the UKRI TAS Programme, the Masterclasses in Swarm, Soft and Aerial Robotics provide developers, operators, end users and researchers with an opportunity for hands-on experience with a range of autonomous and robotic technologies that can be deployed in the logistics, manufacturing and infrastructure industries.

Participants work with university researchers to try out and explore the capabilities of the latest technologies in swarm robotics, soft robotics and aerial robotics (drones) via an interactive ‘teaching and doing’ format.

There are opportunities to explore future avenues for the use of these technologies in the context of your own work, with the TAS Node sponsoring a number of follow-on short student research projects in summer 2023.


The masterclasses were held in-person in April and May 2023 at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, an internationally recognised Centre of Excellence in Robotics run in partnership between the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England (UWE).


Note: The Masterclasses scheduled for 2023 have been held and we are no longer accepting new applications to attend.


Masterclass in Swarm, Soft and Aerial Robotics: Future technologies for logistics, manufacturing and smart infrastructure (pdf)

Wednesday 19 April 2023
10:00 Arrival & registration
10:15 Introductory talks
11:00 Lab tours and technology demos
12:00 Lunch break
13:00 Parallel Workshops: 1.Soft Robotics 2.Swarm Robotics 3.Aerial Robotics
15:00 Discussion: Ways forward – Future work & collaboration
15:30 Networking
16:00 End

Masterclass in Swarm Robotics: Future technologies for logistics, manufacturing and smart infrastructure (pdf)

Thursday 4 May 2023
10:00 Arrival & registration
10:15 Introductory talks
11:00 Swarm Robotics Workshop
13:00 Lunch & Networking
14:00 End

Organising Committee

From the University of Bristol’s TAS Functionality Node:

  • Shane Windsor
  • Sabine Hauert
  • Jonathan Rossiter
  • Katie Drury
  • Miranda Addey

Related links

Prize-winning presentation on regulatory frameworks for future nanomedicines

Matimba Swana presenting her PhD research at GFBR 2022

PhD student, Matimba Swana, was awarded best Pecha Kucha presentation prize at the Global Forum on Bioethics in Research (GFBR 2022) after successfully summarising her entire PhD project in 5 minutes!

Matimba’s PhD focusses on how to build regulations for nanoswarms for future nanomedicine clinical trials in the UK, Europe and US. The research aims to consider the regulatory requirements in advance of the technology being ready for in-human testing.

Cancer nanomedicines can be used as drug carriers that can target tumours more effectively with anti-cancer agents, whilst leaving healthy body tissues untouched. The technology will use swarm behaviour design to improve performance, while avoiding side effects, culminating in an intelligent drug delivery system.

Matimba’s work studies how the classification of nanoswarm technologies as drug delivery systems will influence the regulatory requirements set in each country of use. Consideration of this categorisation alongside the guiding AI principles and ethical concerns will ensure an effective regulatory framework is developed ready for in-human drug testing.

This work was presented as part of the GFBR 2022 conference programme, organised by the World Health Organization, Wellcome and South African Medical Research Council. The event focussed on the topic of ethics of AI in global health research, bringing together ethicists, policy-makers, researchers, clinicians, computer scientists and healthcare workers from across the world to discuss how traditional research ethics regulatory frameworks have responded to the rapid advances in AI technology. ‘Trustworthiness’ featured as a key consideration in the conversation.

Matimba’s presentation was one of ten ‘Pecha Kucha‘ presentations held during the event. This rapid story-telling format is often favoured at academic conferences to give early career researchers an opportunity to spotlight their research widely to delegates before a networking or poster session.

Well done to Matimba on a successful presentation and award!

Find out more

You can read more about Matimba’s PhD work and sign up as a volunteer to talk about ethics and regulations on our Swarm Study page.

Call for Participation: The First International Symposium on Trustworthy Autonomous Systems 2023 (TAS ‘23)

The First International Symposium on Trustworthy Autonomous Systems 2023 (TAS ‘23) | 11-12 July 2023 | Edinburgh, UK

Call for participation | Submissions

UKRI TAS Hub LogoThe UKRI Trustworthy Autonomous Systems (TAS) Hub has invited submissions on novel and creative multidisciplinary research projects focused on trustworthy autonomous systems and their responsible development, for the First International Symposium on Trustworthy Autonomous Systems 2023 (TAS ‘23).

The TAS ’23 symposium will include a networking event for Early Career Researchers (ECRs) and travel grants will be available for ECRs.

Full-paper submissions and poster abstracts that take a multidisciplinary approach to address the challenges of designing, building, and deploying Trustworthy Autonomous Systems are invited. Contributions should consider social, legal, ethical, and technical issues and their impacts on individuals, society, and the economy.

Important dates

  • Paper submissions due: *Extended to 8 March 2023*
  • Poster submissions due: 15 March 2023
  • Notifications: May 2023 (TBC)
  • Camera ready due: May 2023 (TBC)
  • TAS ’23 Symposium: 11–12 July 2023

More information

To read the call for participation and submissions information in full, visit https://symposium.tas.ac.uk


Functionality research showcase at FUTURES 2022

Last week our Ethics and Regulation researchers participated in the FUTURES 2022 Schools Research Fair in the SS Great Britain’s dockyard in Bristol. They joined research teams from the Universities of Bristol and Bath each showing interactive exhibits aimed to excite young children about the wide range of research across the University’s portfolio.

At the TAS Functionality Node stand, children from local primary and secondary schools were asked to consider a number of questions, such as:

“Should there be a human driver present ready to take-over in an autonomous car?”
“Should online medical advice provided by AI inform users they are communicating with a non-human?”
“Should self-driving cars be as safe or safer than the average human driver?”

Ideas were collated into a word cloud (pictured) summarising the range of feelings participants expressed about trusting and regulating autonomous technologies.

Dr Arianna Manzini, Research Associate in Ethics of Autonomous Systems, who led the exhibition said:

“We are grateful to all the schools who participated. It was fantastic to see so many children engaging with our questions and sharing their views about the future of robotics!”

The Schools Research Fair was held as part of the FUTURES 2022 festival of discovery taking place at venues across the South West of the UK this Autumn. The overall ambition of this series of free events is to provide multiple opportunities for the public to find out about innovative, world-class research that universities are leading on across the region. The focus is on interactivity and fun, bringing research to life to inspire others to get involved or learn more.

Our participation in the event formed part of a series of outreach events planned for the whole TAS Functionality Node Programme. Follow us on Twitter @tas_function or via our Events listings on this site to be the first to hear about future events.

Wordcloud of feedback from participants
Word cloud generated by survey responses
Photo of the TAS Functionality Node exhibition at FUTURES 2022
Our exhibition stand at FUTURES 2022

Recycling materials in soft robotics

It’s important for all fields to consider their environmental impact, and robotics doesn’t currently have a rich history of research into sustainability. In this recent paper Professor Rossiter, Dr Partridge and Dr Manzini, from our TAS Functionality Node, demonstrate their research into reducing the waste for soft robotics.

The need for soft bodies and actuators in this field leads to the use of large amounts of silicon, rubber and other elastomers, which isn’t normally recycled. In the paper the authors present a non-chemical process to recycle and reuse these elastomeric materials, which, as well as decreasing the amount the harmful waste, has the extra benefits of minimising the amount of new material needed and lowering costs. The material from old and broken soft actuators was ground into granules ranging from 1mm in diameter to 3mm in diameter and used to create new soft actuators without loss of function. Characterisation tests showed that although some functionality reduced with the percentage of recycled material, the silicone composites exhibited very comparable elastic properties to the pristine silicone.

The authors propose that these materials could then form a pipeline where every time they’re recycled they’re used in lower and lower risk applications. This technique could also help other fields reduce their waste.

Watch this short video to see the research in action:

Access the full paper: ReRobot: Recycled Materials for Trustworthy Soft Robots

And please do leave a comment – we’d love to hear from you!

Trust Me, I’m a Robot!

Event postponement:

This event has been postponed due to a recent fire at the venue. We are working with We The Curious to identify a new date and will update this page when the new date is secured.

Would you trust a parcel-delivering drone? How do swarms of robots collaborate to complete a task? What scares you and excites you the most about living in a world of autonomous systems?


Join us for a fun event about robots and trust!

Where: The space above We The Curious museum, 1 Millennium Square, Anchor Road, Harbourside, Bristol, BS1 5DB

When: Postponed date TBC – watch this space!

Who: This event is open to anyone, but is most suitable for adults and children over 12. Anyone under 18 must be accompanied and supervised by a responsible adult.

What: You will take part in activities like flying drones, building your own robotic gripper, playing games about robot swarms and driverless cars, and more. You will have the opportunity to talk to Bristol University researchers who are developing these technologies and discuss the ethical and societal implications of robotics.

Organisers: This event is organised by the Trustworthy Autonomous System Node in Functionality project at the University of Bristol. This project is funded by UK Research and Innovation. The TAS project investigates how autonomous systems with ‘evolving functionality’, which can rapidly adapt to changes in the environment or in the systems themselves without a human controller, should be developed and deployed to be trustworthy.

COVID-19 measures: Please do not come to the event if you have COVID-19 symptoms. Please also do a lateral flow test before attending if you can, and wear a face covering at the event unless you are exempted.

Accessibility: Please let us know in advance if you have any access requirement. The event is wheelchair friendly. Some activities may not be suitable for deaf or hard-to-hear visitors and blind or partially sighted visitors. For more information about accessibility at We The Curious, please check the ‘Access for all’ webpage.

Contact: If you have any questions, please contact Dr Arianna Manzini by email.