Certain philosophers seem to think so. Self-driving cars are coming. There’s no doubt about that. The question is when? One things that’s been holding up the introduction of this futuristic artificial intelligence (AI) based technology is the conundrum often referred to as the Trolley Problem.
The Trolley Problem is a scenario in which a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You can pull a lever that will redirect the trolley, keeping all five in the trolley safe. However, in doing this, the trolley heads towards a single person stuck on the track. What’s the morally correct thing to do? How should a self-driving AI car be programmed to react in such a situation?
A group of philosophers have taken to building algorithms to try and solve this issue. The group is led by Mass Lowell philosophy professor Nicholas Evans. Together alongside two other philosophers and an engineer, the group have managed to develop various algorithms based on different ethical theories.
With a £556,000 grant allocated to them from the National Sciences Foundation, the team are able to create numerous Trolley Problem situations to see how self-driving AI cars would react depending on its ethical theory. In order to make this possible, Evans and his team had to first turn ethical theories into a language the computer could comprehend.
“We think that the driver has some extra moral value and so, in some cases, the car is allowed to protect the driver even if it costs some people their lives or puts other people at risk,” said Evans. Most ethicists would consider it ok to swerve if it meant a crash was avoided, even if it hit another pedestrian as a result.
As it stands, Evans isn’t collaborating with any manufacturers yet to develop AI self-driving cars, but that doesn’t mean he won’t once the results are in. “It’s not just about how many people die but which people die or whose lives are saved,” said Evans. Maybe both scenarios will save the same number of people, just not the same ones.
There are many benefits that come with AI self-driving cars. Commuting will no longer be a chore as people will have free time to do other things. Autonomous cars could also help to reduce the amount of traffic on the roads. Or, they could make the problem worse. I guess, we’ll just have to wait and see.