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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Driverless Cars: Can There Be a Moral Algorithm?

By Daniel Callahan
The Hastings Center
Originally posted July 5, 2016

Here is an excerpt:

The surveys also showed a serious tension between reducing pedestrians deaths while maximizing the driver’s personal protection. Drivers will want the latter, but regulators might come out on the utilitarian side, reducing harm to others. The researchers conclude by saying that a “moral algorithm” to take account of all these variation is needed, and that they “will need to tackle more intricate decisions than those considered in our survey.” As if there were not enough already.

Just who is to do the tackling? And how can an algorithm of that kind be created?  Joshua Greene has a decisive answer to those questions: “moral philosophers.” Speaking as a member of that tribe, I feel flattered. He does, however, get off on the wrong diplomatic foot by saying that “software engineers–unlike politicians, philosophers, and opinionated uncles—don’t have the luxury of vague abstractions.” He goes on to set a high bar to jump. The need is for “moral theories or training criteria sufficiently precise to determine exactly which rights people have, what virtue requires, and what tradeoffs are just.” Exactly!

I confess up front that I don’t think we can do it.  Maybe people in Greene’s professional tribe turn out exact algorithms with every dilemma they encounter.  If so, we envy them for having all the traits of software engineers.  No such luck for us. We will muddle through on these issues as we have always done—muddle through because exactness is rare (and its claimants suspect), because the variables will all change over time, and because there is varied a set of actors (drivers, manufacturers, purchasers, and insurers) each with different interests and values.

The article is here.