Articles  |  ,   |  June 12, 2019

The underdog in the AI ethical and legal debate: human autonomy

News article by Rowena Rodrigues and Anaïs Rességuier, Trilateral Research.
Published on the Ethics Dialogue Blog, Human Brain Project.


Advances in AI will have serious and lasting consequences for human autonomy. Does the increasing autonomy of machines necessarily imply a decreasing human autonomy?

The human and the ‘system’

In a Pew Research Center report on “Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humans” (2018), Thomas Schneider, head of International Relations Service and vice-director at the Federal Office of Communications (OFCOM), Switzerland, points out, “The biggest danger in my view is that there will be a greater pressure on all members of our societies to live according to what ‘the system’ will tell us is ‘best for us’ to do and not to do, i.e., that we may lose the autonomy to decide ourselves how we want to live our lives, to choose diverse ways of doing things”. This is a critical point that needs further exploration given its profound implications for individuals and society at large. It is even more critical considering the fact that the impacts on autonomy are often invisible and little is known about them and their consequences.

Human autonomy is an individual’s capacity for self-determination or self-governance. It describes a person’s ability to make her or his own rules in life and to make decisions independently. Autonomy is a fundamental human value and an ethical principle. As a principle, it means people must be free to shape their own lives. Respect for autonomy is also enshrined in law in various ways, e.g., under Articles 2 (right to life), 3 (prohibition of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment), and 8 (the right to respect for private life) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Every technology impacts human autonomy. AI and its applications have the potential to further exacerbate such impacts, whether positively or negatively. The EU-funded H2020 SIENNA project carried out a socio-economic impact assessment as part of its research into the state of the art in AI and robotics. One of the key points that emerged was the potential for the diminishment of individual autonomy due to increased use of, and reliance on AI technology. [ . . . ]