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The ethical dilemma of self-driving cars: It seems that technology is moving forward quicker and quicker, but ethical considerations remain far behind

Friday, 22 October 2021

 A lot of discussion and ethical thought about self-driving cars have focused on tragic dilemmas, like hypotheticals in which a car has to decide whether to run over a group of schoolchildren or plunge off a cliff, killing its own occupants. But those sorts of situations are extreme cases.


As a philosopher working with engineers in Stanford’s Center for Automotive Research, I was initially surprised that we spent our lab meetings discussing what I thought was an easy question: How should a self-driving car approach a crosswalk?

My assumption had been that we would think about how a car should decide between the lives of its passengers and the lives of pedestrians. I knew how to think about such dilemmas because these crash scenarios resemble a famous philosophical brainteaser called the “trolley problem.” Imagine a runaway trolley is hurling down the tracks and is bound to hit either a group of five or a single person – would you kill one to save five?

However, many philosophers nowadays doubt that investigating such questions is a fruitful avenue of research. Barbara Fried, a colleague at Stanford, for example, has argued that tragic dilemmas make people believe ethical quandaries mostly arise in extreme and dire circumstances.

In fact, ethical quandaries are ubiquitous. Everyday, mundane situations are surprisingly messy and complex, often in subtle ways. For example: Should your city spend money on a diabetes prevention program or on more social workers? Should your local Department of Public Health hire another inspector for restaurant hygiene standards, or continue a program providing free needles and injection supplies?

These questions are extremely difficult to answer because of uncertainties about the consequences – such as who will be affected and to what degree. The solutions philosophers have proposed for extreme and desperate situations are of little help here.

The problem is similar with self-driving cars. Thinking through extreme situations and crash scenarios cannot help answer questions that arise in mundane situations.

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