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Driverless cars
Photo: Moral Machine

Driverless cars spark debate on ethics and morality

Technology has ensured that we live comfortably. We’ve created many gadgets to help take our minds off things that we consider monotonous or too ‘simple’. It helps us buy clothes, order a meal, send wishes and greetings and so on. Most them are programmed to do a specific task, which means there’s a clear output for every input.

But what about those that have to take a decision, in a split second, on issues involving morality and more importantly, life itself?

Imagine this: a couple of old people are crossing a road the while the signal is green and a car is speeding across to go past them. It can either swerve and crash stop or run over the two people.

What decision will the machine take?

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have been working on solving this dilemma. In their website, tastefully named Moral Machine, they are asking opinion on how the machine should act in situations involving moral dilemmas.

The positives of going driverless

It is widely agreed that the technology could help us tackle rising road accidents. One school is of the belief that by removing human intervention, road accidents can be greatly reduced. Vehicular traffic on roads and travel times could come down drastically. There are also claims that suggest that driverless cars could reduce energy consumption. Cars that are less likely to meet with accidents can be made lighter, saving the fuel consumption.

Likewise, they can cruise at speeds that extract lesser fuel and be bunched together — in an ideal scenario it should help reducing the drag and save energy. These claims might sound a little far-fetched but it is among the many positives that researchers claim.

But for a lay person, the biggest of all is the non-financial cost of reduction in stress levels.

Dr. Zia Wadud, author of paper ‘Driverless cars could increase reliance on roads’ and a researcher at University of Leeds, says:

Car owners might choose to travel by train to relatively distant business meetings because the train allows them to work and relax. The need to drive is part of the cost of choosing the car, just as standing on a cold platform is part of the cost of the train. If you can relax in your car as it safely drives itself to a meeting in another city that changes the whole equation.

The other positive is the ability such cars give to the disabled and the elderly. They increase people’s access to the roads.

If everything seems fine with going driverless, then what’s the fuss, you ask?

Why we can’t go driverless

As pointed out earlier, machines still can’t make decision involving emotions and moral dilemmas. In fact, many researchers are of the opinion that full automation might not be possible in vehicular technology. The fact that algorithms decide on outcomes involving human lives does not go well with many.

For example, image a situation where a pedestrian accidentally strays onto a road where a speeding driverless car has to take a split-second decision to either hit or swerve to cause inconvenience to others on the road. And, the complexity and the levels of inconvenience caused to others on the road needs to be calculated in that moment.

Some say technology needs to be tweaked as and when a problem is encountered. Few are of the opinion that we need to make clear distinctions between issues of road death and morality. The argument is that morality should not play a role if there is evidence suggesting that technology helps saving lives on roads — that what you think about one life in front of you shouldn’t obfuscate the fact that it’s saving millions in other places.

Partial automation of driverless cars

Flying has become one the safest modes of transportation. One reason for it being that way is the constant process of refining the automated processes. Sophisticated systems do a lot a work in making sure human errors are minimized but they cannot be human-free.

David Mindell, an MIT professor who’s working on the subject and a qualified civil aviation pilot, says:

The sophistication of the computer and the software was used not to push people out, but to give them true control over the landing….part of the reason is there are a lot of highly technical systems, but those systems are all imperfect, and the people are the glue that hold the system together. Airline pilots are constantly making small corrections, picking up mistakes, correcting the air traffic controllers.

This does seem like the way forward, if we are keen to move ahead in this direction of driverless cars. The other issue that automakers and researchers are faced with is this: understanding how and why people react differently in a who-causes/caused-a-death debate.

Based on the inputs they’ve received so far it does show that humans are not prepared to accept road deaths that occur due to a judgment of a robot.


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One comment

  1. But what about those that have to take a decision, in a split second, on issues involving morality and more importantly, life itself?

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