Head case

Prof. Guglielmo Tamburrini posed an interesting question in a talk this afternoon. Imagine a self-driving car faced with the option of having to hit one of two motorcyclists. One is wearing a helmet, and the other isn’t. Should it aim for the helmet-wearing guy, to reduce the risk of loss of life?

Philosophers must be having a field day with this stuff. They’re being invited to comment on the latest in sexy new technologies in a way that doesn’t happen very often. (Douglas Adams fans may remember Majikthise & Vroomfondel.) Much of the ethical discussion relating to autonomous vehicles, though, boils down to variations on the Trolley Problem, and the key thing about this — the thing that makes it an interesting ethical conundrum in the first place — is that there is no right answer. If deployment of the railways had required the Trolley Problem to be solved first, we would still be using horse-drawn carts.

The question is not, ‘What should a car do in this situation?’, but ‘How do we get to a point where society is comfortable that we’ve had enough discussion about this?’ Or, more precisely, ‘How do we get to a point where a large enough fraction of society is comfortable, that a party proposing to allow such vehicles on our roads would be elected to government?’

Many technologies, historically, have first been used, and then later have had restrictions placed upon them to reduce the risks which are discovered, with experience, to be the key ones: motorcyclists needing helmets, cars needing seat-belts, pilots needing licences, smokers needing to go outside.

What I presume will happen here is that societies who are less risk-averse will go ahead with greater degrees of autonomous driving, and the more conservative nations will watch with interest until they can amass enough vicarious experience to follow in their footsteps.

I imagine, however, that in 50 years’ time, we’ll still be debating the motorcycle question raised above. By then, though, it will be even more hypothetical, since we’ll have long-since banned motorcycles.

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