Meaning Transformation in AI-based Systems

By Beth Cardier, TAS Fellow 

How can we know whether a transfer of meaning between a person and a machine is meaningful enough for control which is morally responsible?

Future Memory, Oil on linen, 122 x 137 cm, 2021 by Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox.

Future Memory, Oil on linen, 122 x 137 cm, 2021 by Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox.

This question was posed by NATO’s Science and Technology Organisation in a workshop run in collaboration with the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) and Trusted Autonomous Systems (TAS). The topic was Meaningful Human Control of AI-based Systems – Key Characteristics, Influencing Factors and Design Considerations (further details are below.) On this panel, Dr Kate Devitt and myself spoke on the complexity of determining meaning in an open world.

From my perspective as a narrative analyst, the question revolves around the transfer of information between humans and machines. When humans communicate with each other, one person must successfully transfer what’s in their head to another person’s mind in order for correct interpretation to be possible. Humans also draw on surrounding contexts for accurate interpretation, using an awareness of past, future, and theory of mind to receive the correct meaning. When humans transfer information or instructions to machines, however, machines are not able to process these complexities, so key information can be lost.

There is also a problem of asynchronicity in human-machine teams, unless the machine can genuinely adapt. During the machine’s construction, engineers created the channels of mean-production it would use long before it even met its human co-worker. The human has to compensate for this lag, compensating for a machine that relies on pre-determined meaning structures and other, out-of-sight contexts related to its design.

An ordinary user understands this disconnect, even though they might not consciously analyse it. It is why machines still receive aghast reactions on social media when they try to emulate humans, regardless of how amusing or charming their presentations.

This is one of the reasons I focus on adaptive communication in my research. My goal is to introduce a new suite of information structures to human-machine information exchange so that our technologies can be more flexible. When humans exchange information with each other, narrative emerges because the language tokens we use are inadequate. Stories form bridging structure between you and I, or between past and present, and are the means of bringing another person along when our circumstances exceed an initial plan. Science has not fully exploited these adaptive information structures yet.

For example, consider these transformations. Information can have properties of water, taking the shape of the vessel it fills, that vessel being context. Or information can have properties of a vine, reaching beyond itself to grow from one place to the next. Or maybe information is a knife, dividing the swim of experience into discrete objects, and then cutting from such a different angle that reinterpretation is required. We want our machines to act reliably in the open world but the world itself is not reliable. How can we maintain meaningful communication with machines, when accurate interpretation requires a vine or a knife or a river?

At a Glance

  • Workshop: NATO’s Science and Technology Organisation ran a workshop in collaboration with the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) and Trusted Autonomous Systems (TAS).
  • Focus: Meaningful Human Control of AI-based Systems – Key Characteristics, Influencing Factors and Design Considerations
  • When: October 27, 2021
  • Where: Berlin and online.
  • Speakers: Dr Daniele Amoroso of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, Dr Le on Kester of TNO, Dr Luciano Cavalcante Siebert assistant professor at the Interactive Intelligence Group at Delft University of Technology, Dr Kate Devitt from TAS and Dr Beth Cardier, from Griffith University and TAS.


Image: Future Memory, Oil on linen, 122 x 137 cm, 2021 by Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox

Public consultation commences on draft Australian Code of Practice for the Design, Construction, Survey and Operation of Autonomous & Remotely Operated Vessels

New future thinking paper: Autonomous and Remotely Operated Vessels: 2021 to 2040

By Rachel Horne, Assurance of Autonomy Activity Lead, TAS

“Autonomous and Remotely Operated Vessels: 2021 to 2040” [1] is a newly published paper considering the future of autonomous vessels. It forms part of the Maritime Industry Australia Limited (MIAL) Future Leaders White Paper: Predictions for the Australian Maritime Industry 2040.

The paper considers: What are autonomous vessels? How are they regulated? Why is regulation so difficult and what can we change to make it easier? A central focus for the discussion is how we might accelerate development of autonomous vessels with a focus on building sovereign capability and what success in this sector would mean for the Australian autonomous systems ecosystem in 2040.

New future thinking paper: Autonomous and Remotely Operated Vessels: 2021 to 2040

New future thinking paper: Autonomous and Remotely Operated Vessels: 2021 to 2040

The paper aims to introduce autonomous vessels and the opportunities and challenges the technology presents for Australia, in a way that is accessible and thought-provoking. It explores a broad range of topics and issues related to autonomous vessels, starting with background on what these vessels are and why they are used, what their benefits are, and the features we will likely see by 2040 commercially and within Defence, and then moving on to impact on workforce, the current regulatory framework and conceptually difficult areas, and concluding with a range of proposed solutions.


Predictions for the Australian maritime industry in 2040

The paper includes six predictions for the Australian maritime industry in 2040, extracted below:

  1. Minimally crewed vessels with a spectrum of autonomous capabilities will be a normalised part of the commercial vessel fleet operating for routine passenger transport, movement of goods, scientific research, and tourism. The police, border protection and Defence agencies will have significant numbers of semi-autonomous and autonomous vessels in their fleets.
  2. A Maritime Water Space Management System (MWSPS) will have been implemented to manage allocation of surface and subsurface water space and interaction between smart vessels.
  3. The deconfliction service offered through the MWSPS, together with advanced navigation, sensing, and inter-vessel communication technologies, will enable minimal-crewing, and multiple semi-or fully-autonomous vessels to be supervised remotely by single operators, due to the significant reduction in collision risk.
  4. A new Commonwealth Government entity, ‘Australian Complex Autonomous Systems Safety Authority’ (ACASSA) will set the standards and conduct assurance activities for the “black box” behind autonomous and semi-autonomous systems, for each of the air, land and maritime domains. Two way secondments between ACASSA and traditional regulators will ensure a seamless experience for stakeholders, consistent regulatory and policy development, and the upskilling of staff.
  5. “RegTech” concepts will be implemented by the ACASSA to enable continuous background monitoring of AI-based autonomous systems, using risk thresholds to determine input required by the operator, and enabling non-intrusive compliance checks.
  6. Australian Ports are able to accommodate large international trading vessels with advanced autonomy on board, and the integration of Vessel Traffic Services with the Maritime Water Space Management System have reduced the workload of VTS operators and vessel crew, reduced incidents, and improved efficiency. [2]


How can the 2040 vision be achieved?

The paper argues that change, led by Government and supported by industry, is needed to ensure the maritime industry can access the range of benefits autonomous technology offers into the future. Collaboration, and a focus on new regulatory approaches, upskilling the maritime workforce, and smart ports, are all central to achieving the 2040 vision.

The paper concludes:

Autonomous and remotely operated vessels are already in operation in Australia and around the world, and their capability and availability are rapidly growing. It is predicted that, by 2040, these vessels will be an integrated, integral part of the Australian maritime industry, leading to safer, more efficient, maritime operations, with less environmental impact. However, to achieve that vision, significant effort from Government, the maritime industry, and other stakeholders must be invested to put in place the regulatory frameworks, qualifications frameworks, skills base, and port facilities, that are required.

Transitioning from 2021 to the vision for 2040 will require the advancements contained within the diagram below.

Australian Autonomous Vessel Ecosystem in 2040

These advancements are within Australia’s reach, if a proactive, coordinated effort, led by Government and incorporating industry and the community is enacted.

If this effort is not put in now, for example because of distrust for new technology, fear about the impact on jobs, an inability to depart from ‘the way it has always been done’, or simply disinterest from the Australian Government, other countries, particularly those with more developed technological capability, will seize the advantage, and monopolise the opportunities on the table. Leveraging Australia’s talented technologists and innovators, maintaining a strong focus on building sovereign capability through multidisciplinary activities, and a Government-led, multi-domain effort to revamp Australia’s regulatory approach to emerging technology, will position the Australian maritime industry to take full advantage of the spectrum of safety, environment, efficiency, and economic benefits of autonomous systems technology. [3]

“In other words, to fully realise the potential of autonomous shipping, the development technologies must be deemed valuable by the wider marine industry as well as the society as a whole.” (Advanced Autonomous Waterborne Applications – AAWA initiative)


What is TAS doing that supports the vision identified in this paper?

In addition to facilitating the development of game changing trusted autonomous systems technology, Trusted Autonomous Systems (TAS) also has two common-good activities: A1 Ethics and Law of Trusted Autonomous Systems and A2 Assurance of Autonomy. These activities, funded by Queensland Government, provide support and resources to TAS participants and broader commercial and Defence stakeholders.

Under the A2 Assurance of Autonomy Activity, the National Accreditation Support Facility Pathfinder Project (NASF-P) is delivering the following:

The NASF-P has already:

Under the A2 Assurance of Autonomy Activity, the Enabling Agile Assurance of Drones in Queensland project is delivering smart digital regulatory tools to enhance efficiency and communication amongst operators and regulators, facilitating innovation and driving growth in industry.

To find out more about the projects underway at TAS please visit our website, or contact



[1] Horne, R. (2021). Autonomous and remotely operated vessels 2021 to 2040. MIAL Future Leaders White Paper. Predictions for the Australian Maritime Industry 2040. Maritime Industry Australia Limited. pp.12-27

[2] Ibid.,

[3] Ibid.,

[4] Ibid.,