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Spring 2023 GRASP on Robotics: Emilio Frazzoli, ETH Zürich, “A self-contained karma economy for socially efficient and equitable autonomy”

March 17 at 10:30 AM - 11:45 AM

This is a hybrid event with in-person attendance in Wu and Chen and virtual attendance via Zoom. This week’s presenter will be in-person as well.



Autonomous systems of the near future have the potential to impact and improve our lives in unprecedented ways. As an example, an autonomous taxi service can be instructed to take the socially responsible route minimizing congestion (and associated carbon emissions) instead of the purely selfish shortest route. In order for such a system to be robust and gain public acceptance, it is critical that it respects the users’ personal incentives, as well as ensures that different users enjoy equitable service. Until now, the vast majority of incentive schemes used in engineering systems have been monetary. Examples include road-tolling to reduce traffic congestion, surge-pricing to manage excessive demand in ride-hailing, and time-varying energy tariffs to encourage consumption off peak hours. In this talk, we argue that the use of money in engineering systems is fundamentally flawed. The sensitivity of users to money can vary widely for factors outside the system (e.g., income and inter-generational wealth accumulation), and therefore monetary schemes implicitly favor the wealthy. We introduce the concept of a self-contained karma economy as an alternative incentive scheme. In a karma economy, each user is endowed with tokens (called karma) that are non-tradable for money, and the users repeatedly obtain or yield a preferential service in exchange of karma. We demonstrate this concept on the stylized yet insightful example of autonomous intersection management, where an agent passing first in an intersection transfers karma to that yielding. We lay the mathematical foundations that ensure that such an economy is well-defined and the strategic behavior of its users (i.e., how much karma they spend) can be predicted. We then analyze the performance of the karma economy in numerical case studies, showcasing that it achieves socially efficient outcomes in a self-contained, and thereby equitable, manner.

Emilio Frazzoli

ETH Zürich

Emilio Frazzoli is a professor of Dynamic Systems and Control at ETH Zurich. Until March 2021, he was Chief Scientist of Motional, the latest embodiment of nuTonomy, the startup he founded with Karl Iagnemma in 2013. His main research interest are in robotics, autonomous systems, and intelligent mobility. In acknowledgement of his work in these fields, Emilio has received several awards, including the the 2015 IEEE George S. Axelby Award and the 2017 IEEE Kiyo Tomiyasu Award, and has been named an IEEE Fellow in 2019. In 2022, he received the RSS Test of Time award for his papers on RRT*, with Sertac Karaman. A former full professor at MIT, he directed the research group that first demonstrated an autonomous mobility (“robotaxi”) service to the public, and performed the first analysis of the social and economic impact of such a service, based on real transportation data. He holds a Laurea Degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the Sapienza University of Rome, and a PhD in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT.


March 17
10:30 AM - 11:45 AM
Event Category:


General Robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception (GRASP) Lab
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Wu and Chen Auditorium (Room 101), Levine Hall
3330 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104 United States
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