Attributing Agency to Automated Systems: Reflections on Human–Robot Collaborations and Responsibility-Loci

Sven Nyholm

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Many ethicists writing about automated systems (e.g. self-driving cars and autonomous weapons systems) attribute agency to these systems. Not only that; they seemingly attribute an autonomous or independent form of agency to these machines. This leads some ethicists to worry about responsibility-gaps and retribution-gaps in cases where automated systems harm or kill human beings. In this paper, I consider what sorts of agency it makes sense to attribute to most current forms of automated systems, in particular automated cars and military robots. I argue that whereas it indeed makes sense to attribute different forms of fairly sophisticated agency to these machines, we ought not to regard them as acting on their own, independently of any human beings. Rather, the right way to understand the agency exercised by these machines is in terms of human–robot collaborations, where the humans involved initiate, supervise, and manage the agency of their robotic collaborators. This means, I argue, that there is much less room for justified worries about responsibility-gaps and retribution-gaps than many ethicists think.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1201-1219
Number of pages19
JournalScience and Engineering Ethics
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Aug 2018


  • Agency
  • Automation
  • Human–robot collaboration
  • Responsibility-gaps
  • Responsibility-loci


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