Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Programmable ethics in your car

There was a really fascinating editorial at Wired about self-driving cars and liability.  I know, I know – that sounds like a pretty boring topic.  But read on.

One of the problems with self-driving cars is not the engineering but the liability.  If your self-driving car is about to hit five people who jumped out into the road, should it swerve and hit a single person instead?  You might think that hitting one person is better than hitting five.  But you also might think that swerving into someone is an intentional act and therefore worse.  This example is based on the famous trolley problem that I have written about before.  So which should the car do?  And could the person/people who get hit sue because someone consciously made the choice to program the car that way?

But this is where the editorial gets interesting.  You can imagine a whole bunch of options for the car.  Should it decide based on some characteristics of the people?  Maybe swerving into an adult is preferred to hitting the group of five, but swerving into a child is not?  But of course this gives us the slippery slope.  What if it swerves into males but not females?  Obese smokers but not healthy marathon runners?  What if it swerves into gas-guzzling SUVs, but not Priuses?

To offload these tough questions, what if the car lets you set your preferences yourself?  Would you allow each driver to decide?  Maybe Joe would choose to hit three obese female Muslims over five Christian disabled veterans, but not if they are undocumented immigrants.  And Mary would swerve into a Prius if the three passengers aren’t wearing seatbelts and two are texting over the SUV with five teenagers with a blood alcohol level of 0.07 but attending an Ivy League college.  But now who gets sued, you or the car maker?

But if you think that this is all ridiculous and that the car shouldn’t be making these decisions at all, you are still choosing.  If the car doesn’t swerve, then you have chosen to hit the group of five.  If the car does swerve than you have chosen to hit the one.  It’s still a choice.