Artificial intelligence experts and roboticists aren’t the only ones working on the problem of autonomous vehicles. Philosophers are also paying close attention to the development of what, from their perspective, looks like a myriad of ethical quandaries on wheels.
The field has been particularly focused over the past few years on one particular philosophical problem posed by self-driving cars: They are a real-life enactment of a moral conundrum known as the Trolley Problem. In this classic scenario, a trolley is going down the tracks towards five people. You can pull a lever to redirect the trolley, but there is one person stuck on the only alternative track. The scenario exposes the moral tension between actively doing versus allowing harm: Is it morally acceptable to kill one to save five, or should you allow five to die rather than actively hurt one?
Though the Trolley Problem sounds farfetched, autonomous vehicles will be unable to avoid comparable scenarios. If a car is in a situation where any action will put either the car passenger or someone else in danger—if there’s a truck crash ahead and the only options are to swerve into a motorbike or off a cliff—then how should the car be programmed to respond?
Rather than pontificating on this, a group of philosophers have taken a more practical approach, and are building algorithms to solve the problem. Nicholas Evans, philosophy professor at Mass Lowell, is working alongside two other philosophers and an engineer to write algorithms based on various ethical theories. Their work, supported by a $556,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, will allow them to create various Trolley Problem scenarios, and show how an autonomous car would respond according to the ethical theory it follows.
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