Automated Vehicle Ethics

I’ve blogged before on the push for automated vehicles – self-driving cars.  While it seems an inevitable application of technology – and may in fact be safer in the long run, it’s still going to take some considerable work to figure out the nuances of it.  There’s the technology aspect, as well as the necessity to direct vehicles in how to behave if they think an accident is unavoidable.  How do  you teach a car to make an ethical decision?

Traditionally, this is talked about in terms of the Trolley Problem, a philosophical scenario developed in 1967 by philosopher Philippa Foot.  It’s a fascinating little thought experiment.  But the first problem is nobody has a good solution for it.  And the second problem is that it’s going to be difficult to program a car how based on it.

The third problem is the assumption that, in a split second reaction time, there can be a pre-defined way of solving the problem.  After all, it’s hard enough to solve given a few moments (or years) to contemplate it.  Save more or fewer lives?  Save more important people or less important people?  Save younger people or older people?  And how do you define and quantify more, fewer, more important, less important, young and old?

I’m not sure how I would react in a split second decision.  Reflexes and some sort of sub-conscious thought no-doubt kick in.  But would I regret my decision after the fact?  Would I castigate myself for what I viewed as an incorrect choice after the fact?  Would I be willing to sue myself to that extent?

I’m not sure I could answer these questions in advance (hence the compelling nature of the philosophical scenario), let alone in a moment of instinctual thought and action.  I pray I am never in such a situation, where such a decision needs to be made.  There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong decision, at least not in any sort of unquestionable and always-and-forever sort of sense.  I can say with a far greater certainty about who I wouldn’t intentionally set out to hurt, but in the midst of a split second decision between two equally undesirable choices?  That’s hard.

At the very least I feel bad for self-driving cars.  Just another reason I will likely never own one.

 

2 Responses to “Automated Vehicle Ethics”

  1. Retrotek Australia NZ Says:

    It is amazing that most of us in the automated vehicle research don t like them and yet we keep researching ,

    • mrpaulnelson Says:

      Interesting indeed. It’s almost like we can’t help ourselves. And there’s the added pressure of knowing that even if you were to hypothetically stop researching it, someone else would step in to do so. Quite the dilemma. What’s your background in? And welcome!

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