April 19, 2019

The Murky Morality of Self-Driving Cars

“The “Trolley Problem” is a famous ethical dilemma about killing one person to save others. A group of MIT researchers recently applied it to the world of self-driving cars, posing a series of questions to more than 2 million online participants from more than 200 countries. The results reveal some regional preferences, but the overall consensus was clear: In the right situations, animals, the elderly, and small groups of people are in a lot of trouble.

Invented by British philosopher Phillippa Foot in 1967, the Trolley Problem uses hypothetical scenarios within extreme environments to test utilitarian and Aristotlean ethics. The most common version is of a driver of a trolley, forced to decide between staying on his track and killing five people, or switching tracks and killing only one. For this study, researchers at MIT’s Moral Machine created 13 scenarios involving self-driving cars in an urban setting. Although the self driving-industry has debated the issue for years, some say too many years, the new study advances the debate by offering up something that computers can easily understand: big data.

Edmond Awad, a postdoc at MIT Media Lab and lead author of the paper, says that the researchers “found that there are three elements that people seem to approve of the most:”

sparing the lives of humans over the lives of animals;
sparing the lives of many people rather than a few; and
sparing the lives of young people rather than old.”

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