The Politics of Robot Autonomy

(7) European Journal of Risk Regulation (2) pp. 341-360

24 Pages Posted: 10 Aug 2016

Date Written: July 27, 2016


The autonomy robots enjoy is understood in different ways. On the one hand, a technical understanding of autonomy is firmly anchored in the present and concerned with what can be achieved now by means of code and programming; on the other hand, a philosophical understanding of robot autonomy looks into the future and tries to anticipate how robots will evolve in the years to come. The two understandings are at odds at times, occasionally they even clash. However, not one of them is necessarily truer than the other. Each is driven by certain real-life factors; each rests on its own justification. This article discusses these two “views of robot autonomy” in depth and witnesses them at work at two of the most relevant events of robotics in recent times, namely the Darpa Robotics Challenge, which took place in California in June 2015, and the ongoing process to address lethal autonomous weapons in humanitarian Geneva, which is spurred on by a “Campaign to Stop Killer Robots”.

Note: This article was published in June 2016 in (7) European Journal of Risk Regulation (2) pp. 341-360 as part of a special issue including five articles on "The Man and the Machine: When Systems Take Decisions Autonomously", edited by Thomas Burri and Isabelle Wildhaber; the authors of the other articles are Shawn Bayern, Madeleine de Cock Buning, Ugo Pagallo/Massimo Durante, and Melinda Florina Lohmann.

Keywords: International Law, International humanitarian law, Artificial Intelligence, Robots, DARPA, Autonomy,

JEL Classification: K33

Suggested Citation

Burri, Thomas, The Politics of Robot Autonomy (July 27, 2016). (7) European Journal of Risk Regulation (2) pp. 341-360, Available at SSRN: or

Thomas Burri (Contact Author)

University of St. Gallen ( email )

Bodanstrasse 3
Saint Gallen, St. Gallen CH-9000


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