Autonomous and Semi-Autonomous Software Systems

Having clarified the distinction between automation and autonomy, and explored the concepts of delegated autonomy in human organisations, it is worth exploring how these concepts can be realised in software systems and autonomous vehicles, to provide capabilities not currently available with conventional software.

The first questions would be “Why would we want to have autonomy? What advantages does it provide?” Returning to the example of the human organisation, we can see that delegated authority, which provides a level of autonomy appropriate to the circumstances offers:

         
  • A clear management structure, with the lines of authority and communications clearly defined. This ensures that people can comprehend the management structure that they participate in, and it is widely understood.
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  • Decision-making is delegated where possible, ensuring that senior managers – responsible for strategic decisions – are not bogged down in assimilating detail in order to make minor decisions. Consequently management workload is shared appropriately among the managers and members of the organisation.   Delays resulting from too high a workload are minimised.
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  • The organisation is more responsive, it can respond as quickly as possible to changes, as many decisions don't need to go to the top of the organisation.
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  • Communications are improved, as managers and members only need to receive information necessary for their role – not irrelevant detail which distracts from their prime responsibility.
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  • There are established paths of authority and criteria for escalation, ensuring that decisions are made at an appropriate level in the organisation, which is much more likely to lead to a high-quality outcome.
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  • Productivity is higher as people are able to make many decisions locally, referring to higher management only on key decisions as defined by the management strategy.
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This leads to the concept of autonomy that is comprised of various decision-making sub-systems, each responsible for its domain, and coordinated by an autonomous manager which ultimately works with its human controllers.

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