Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : January 19th 2017 Contents life B23
Thursday, January 19, 2017 guardian.co.tt
For driverless cars,
a moral dilemma:
Who lives or dies?
Imagine you're behind the wheel
when your brakes fail. As you speed
toward a crowded crosswalk, you're
confronted with an impossible
choice: veer right and mow down
a large group of elderly people, or
veer left into a woman pushing a
Now imagine you're riding in the
back of a self-driving car. How would
Researchers at the Massachusetts In-
stitute of Technology are asking people
worldwide how they think a robot car
should handle such life-or-death de-
cisions. Their goal is not just for better
algorithms and ethical tenets to guide
autonomous vehicles, but to understand
what it will take for society to accept
the vehicles and use them.
Their findings present a dilemma
for car makers and governments eager
to introduce self-driving vehicles on
the promise that they'll be safer than
human-controlled cars. People prefer
a self-driving car to act in the greater
good, sacrificing its passenger if it can
save a crowd of pedestrians. They just
don't want to get into that car.
"There is a real risk that if we don't
understand those psychological barriers
and address them through regulation
and public outreach, we may undermine
the entire enterprise," said Iyad Rahwan,
an associate professor at the MIT Me-
dia Lab. "People will say they're not
comfortable with this. It would stifle
what I think will be a very good thing
After publishing research last year
surveying US residents, Rahwan and
colleagues at the University of Toulouse
in France and the University of Cali-
fornia, Irvine, are now expanding their
surveys and looking at how responses
vary in different countries.
They are also using a website creat-
ed by MIT researchers called the Moral
Machine, which allows people to play
the role of judging who lives or dies. A
jaywalking person or several dogs riding
in the driverless car? A pregnant woman
or a homeless man?
Preliminary, unpublished research
based on millions of responses from
more than 160 countries shows broad
differences between East and West.
More prominent in the United States
and Europe are judgments that reflect
the utilitarian principle of minimising
total harm over all else, Rahwan said.
The thought experiment is familiar
to ethicists, who have grappled with
such dilemmas since British philoso-
pher Philippa Foot in the 1960s pre-
sented a similar question about a run-
away trolley. But it's too unrealistic for
some focused on how the vehicles act
in ordinary situations.
Just five miles from MIT's Media Lab
in Cambridge, the first self-driving
car to roll out on Massachusetts pub-
lic roads began testing this month in
Boston's Seaport District.
"We approach the problem from a bit
more of a practical, engineering per-
spective," said NuTonomy CEO Karl
Iagnemma, whose Cambridge-based
company has also piloted self-driving
taxis in Singapore.
Iagnemma said the study's moral
dilemmas are "vanishingly rare." De-
signing a safe vehicle, not a "sophis-
ticated ethical creature," is the focus
of his engineering team as they tweak
the software that guides their electric
Renault Zoe past Boston snowbanks.
"When a driverless car looks out on
the world, it's not able to distinguish
the age of a pedestrian or the number
of occupants in a car," Iagnemma said.
"Even if we wanted to imbue an auton-
omous vehicle with an ethical engine,
we don't have the technical capability
today to do so."
Focusing too much on the stark "trol-
ley problem" risks marginalising the
study of how best to address self-driv-
ing ethics, said Noah Goodall, a scientist
at the Virginia Transportation Research
Council. Engineers already program cars
to make moral choices, such as when
they slow down and leave space after
detecting a bicyclist.
"All these cars do risk management. It
just doesn't look like a trolley problem,"
Rahwan agrees with self-driving
enthusiasts that freeing vehicles from
human error could save many lives. But
he worries that progress could be stalled
without a new social compact that ad-
dresses moral trade-offs.
Current traffic laws and human be-
havioural norms have created "trust
that this entire system functions in a
way that works in our interests, which
is why we're willing to fit into large
pieces of metal moving at high speeds,"
"The problem with the new system
it has a very distinctive feature: algo-
rithms are making decisions that have
very important consequences on human
life," he said.
After publishing research
last year surveying US
residents, Rahwan and
colleagues at the University
of Toulouse in France and
the University of California,
Irvine, are now expanding
their surveys and looking
at how responses vary in
different countries. They are
also using a website created
by MIT researchers called
the Moral Machine, which
allows people to play the
role of judging who lives or
dies. A jaywalking person
or several dogs riding in the
driverless car? A pregnant
woman or a homeless man?
An autonomous vehicle is driven by an engineer on a street through an industrial park, in Boston. AP PHOTO
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