Autonomous robotic systems are poised to transform society, and Johns Hopkins University wants to ensure the transformation is for the better, said Jim Bellingham, the recently appointed executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Assured Autonomy (IAA) in Baltimore, in his APL Colloquium presentation titled “Autonomy at the Edge” (view recording), hosted by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, MD.

Bellingham, a pioneer in autonomous marine robotics, also serves concurrently as senior advisor at APL and a research professor in the Whiting School of Engineering. In his talk, he highlighted key milestones in the development of autonomous marine craft and systems, identified state of the art advancements, and reflected on the future potential impact of the systems on society. He also shared his vision of the role of the IAA — a national center for excellence for assured artificial intelligence and smart autonomous systems that is run jointly by APL and the Whiting School — in shaping that future.

A number of marine industries are poised to be transformed by autonomous marine systems, Bellingham said, including the oil and gas industry; offshore wind farming; deepwater mining for ocean minerals; telecommunications; and aquaculture. He noted that new industries will emerge as a result of the proliferation of autonomous systems, as well.

What’s more important are the imminent societal transformations, and the IAA has a key role in ensuring these will be for the better, Bellingham said. He noted that the interdisciplinary nature of the IAA puts it in a unique position to address the issue from the technological side — managing the increasing interaction of multiple complex systems — as well as the ethics and policy side.

Bellingham is a global leader in the fields of autonomous systems and marine robotics. In the 1980s, he founded the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Lab; he also cofounded Bluefin Robotics, where he personally designed a number of autonomous underwater vehicles that were used for decades by the US Navy. For more than a decade, he served as director of engineering and then chief technologist of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute; he founded the Center of Marine Robotics at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute; and he led the Naval Research Advisory Committee for a number of years.

But before that, Bellingham was a graduate student studying physics at the height of the Cold War — an experience that prompted him to consider the tough questions at the nexus of technology, policy, and ethics early on. Such reflection is necessary to guide the emergence of widespread autonomous systems in society, he said.

“In the physics community, there was an awakening to the importance of ethics in research, which came with having played a role in creating nuclear weapons and nuclear power.  For me, this discussion was very much embedded in the education,” said Bellingham. “In the computer science world — which I think has an equally large, if not much bigger impact on day-to-day life — those conversations are remarkably absent.

“The buck stops with humans — we can’t blame it on the robots,” he said. “It’s up to us to get this right.”​