A new survey from MIT into the ethical challenges of autonomous vehicles reveals both global preferences and regional variations in answers to some tough questions. Chris Middleton reports.
There are 1.2 billion cars in use worldwide, and every year 1.2 million people die on the roads, meaning that one person loses his or her life for every 1,000 cars made.
Recent figures from the US government reveal that over 37,000 people died in motor vehicle crashes in America alone last year. Ninety-four percent involved driver-related factors, such as distraction, drink or drugs, speeding, or illegal manoeuvres.
The inescapable conclusion is that human drivers are the biggest danger to themselves and to other human beings.
So getting rid of the driver would appear to be the logical answer to safer transport. It would also free up the 293 hours that the average American spends behind the wheel of a car every year, according to American Automobile Association (AAA) figures. At least in the long run.
But a future in which no one owns or drives a car themselves is a long way off – and it’s conceivable that it may never arrive. In the US, 3.5 million people earn a living from driving, the most common job in several US states.
Either way, driverless cars and delivery vehicles will have to share the road with traditional automobiles for many years to come.
More significantly, autonomous cars will have to co-exist with vulnerable humans: people crossing busy roads, wheeling prams, sitting in wheelchairs or using mobility aids, standing on street corners, riding bikes, scooters, or skateboards, and generally behaving in a messy and (perhaps) unpredictable way.
But that may be a problem that can be solved over time with more and more data.
Yet despite the genuine commitment of mobility companies to make our roads safer and our cities less toxic, there will come a time when an autonomous car may have to make a life or death decision.
This gives rise to some classic ethical conundrums.
For example, in situations where death or injury seems unavoidable, should a computer system opt to take an action that is likely to kill the driver/passenger, or the pedestrian who has walked in front of the car?
Should a driverless car swerve to hit a couple of people, rather than a group of bystanders? Or strike an adult instead of a child? And who might be responsible or liable for these deaths?
When an Uber test vehicle killed 49-year-old Elaine Herzberg as she wheeled her bike across the freeway in Tempe, Arizona, in March, the ethical can of worms opened up by the accident became all too apparent.
Was the safety driver responsible for not watching the road? If so, why didn’t Uber’s autonomous system identify a woman wheeling a bicycle until it was too late? And why were the test Volvo’s own safety systems, which might have prevented the accident, disengaged?
Imagine the lawsuits that would be ongoing today if the dead pedestrian had been the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, rather than a woman who was grappling with homelessness.
Or, in a politically polarised and litigious culture, such as the US, imagine a future autonomous car electing to strike, say, a disabled person, another woman, a child, or someone from an ethnic minority, rather than a group of middle-aged white men.
In the US, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have looked into these problems, with a global study drawing in over two million online participants “from over 200 countries”, it says. The aim was to examine different versions of the ethical conundrum known as the ‘Trolley Problem’.
This involves scenarios in which an accident is imminent, and the driverless vehicle (in this case) must opt for one of two potentially fatal options – such as swerving towards a couple of people, rather than a larger group.
The Moral Machine
To conduct the survey, the researchers designed what they called ‘Moral Machine’, a multilingual online game in which participants could state their preferences in a series of dilemmas that autonomous vehicles might face.
Some of the questions were more intriguing than others. For instance: If it comes down to an either/or choice, should the car spare the lives of law-abiding bystanders, or law-breaking pedestrians – people who might be jaywalking, for example? Most people in the survey opted for the former.
In some future society where people’s reputations are governed by social ratings and popular app usage, such a hypothetical question could become all too real. It’s conceivable that an autonomous vehicle might be able to tell a law-abiding citizen from a serial offender.
As China – where more and more citizens use the same WeChat app to network and pay for goods – rolls out just such a compulsory ratings system in 2020 (it’s already in voluntary use), it’s possible that a future crashing car may decide to take out a criminal. How’s that for an episode of Black Mirror?
“The study is basically trying to understand the kinds of moral decisions that driverless cars might have to resort to,” said Edmond Awad, post-doctoral researcher at the MIT Media Lab and lead author of the new paper outlining the results of the project. “We don’t know yet how they should do that.”
The Moral Machine compiled nearly 40 million individual decisions from around the world. The researchers analysed the data as a set, but also broke out participants into subgroups defined by age, education, gender, income, and political and religious views.
The team found few significant moral differences based on these characteristics. However, they did find clusters of preferences based on cultural and geographic affiliations.
Overall, the researchers found three elements that people most agreed on. People generally believed in sparing the lives of: humans over other animals; the many rather than the few; and the young, rather than the old.
But it wasn’t straightforward: the degree to which respondents agreed or not with these principles varied among different groups and countries. For example, MIT found a less pronounced tendency to favour young people over older citizens in some parts of Asia, where many cultures honour age and experience over youth.
Conversely, respondents in southern countries had a relatively stronger preference for sparing young people rather than the old, said MIT.
Awad believes that acknowledging these differing preferences should be core to future public discussions about these issues. This is a key point when the US is engaged in a race for national dominance in driverless transport.
More, seeking public input on issues where innovation and public safety meet should play a larger role in the dialogue about autonomous vehicles – especially since recent AAA research found public support for driverless technologies waning in the US, in the wake of the Uber and Tesla accidents.
“The question is whether these differences in preferences will matter in terms of people’s adoption of the new technology when [vehicles] employ a specific rule,” said Awad. “What we have tried to do in this project, and what I would hope becomes more common, is to create public engagement in these sorts of decisions.”
Internet of Business says
This is a timely survey, with the full results published yesterday in the journal, Nature.
As debate rages about driverless cars, the technical difficulties are often far tougher than automakers and technologists publicly admit. For example, a recent Reuters report on GM’s Cruise division reveals significant “speed bumps” in the road to autonomous transport.
Meanwhile, our news report on Addison Lee’s plan to bring driverless taxis to London by 2021 found Cambridge Consultants’ machine learning expert Dr Sally Epstein slamming the focus on technology over ethics and transparency.
Epstein said, “When fully autonomous vehicles do finally arrive, explaining how their decisions are made, particularly following accidents, will be much more important than any statistical proof that they experience fewer accidents than with humans at the wheel.”
She added: “[Addison Lee’s] goal of autonomous vehicles in the UK by 2021 is hugely ambitious, but consumers should know that we’re nowhere near to having genuinely driverless cars on public roads.”
Indeed, Addison Lee’s service may initially take the form of shuttle buses on regular routes.
But while the MIT report itself is fascinating, insightful, and useful, it arguably suffers from reducing an important debate to a set of binary options. This risks reducing ethics themselves to either/or answers to received, utilitarian questions.
What about option three? What if neither option in the question is acceptable? And who questions the questioner?
After all, coding the instruction ‘Kill a criminal rather than a law-abiding citizen’ into an AI system (even hypothetically) would itself appear to present a moral hazard to society, even if it is in response to a majority view.
That criminal might be a good person who made one mistake in life, after suffering a life of hardship and abuse, while the law-abiding citizen who lives might be a terrible individual who has contributed nothing to society.
Asking a machine to decide who lives and who dies can’t be reduced to a simple set of binary options in this way, like a switch in a microprocessor.
At present, there is little evidence – outside of China, at least – that consumers actually want the mass introduction of autonomous transport, despite how many problems it may solve in the long term, as we grapple with the problem of ageing people in ageing cities.
Connected, smart, electric vehicles with driver-assistance systems, yes. But mass autonomy? Vendors need to do far more to convince citizens of the benefits – especially in the US where the ‘lone driver on the open road’ is core to the American Dream, to how a nation thinks about itself.
Of course, others may argue that that is the real problem.
What do you think?
Shiv has over 8 years experience working on Internet of Things and an avid user of Drones