The newest tech dream these days seems to be self-driving cars, vehicles programmed to take us back and forth without the need of a human driver. But what will these machines be programmed to do during an impending catastrophic accident? At least one ethicist is warning that your self-driving car might be programmed to save the most lives during such a situation — killing you in the process.
Ethicists and philosophers have used many tests to determine how a living person deals with a “no win” scenario, one where whatever decision is made someone will get hurt, maybe even the person being tested. How one answers that question can determine who lives and who dies in a real-life situation, certainly.
But what happens when that decision is being made by a computer? What if, for instance, your driverless car decides that your life is expendable in order to save a school bus full of children?
Are you comfortable with a soulless computer making a life or death decision when it is your life on the line? Should the computer in your driverless car be able to use a “utilitarian” philosophy to save the lives of others even if yours is sacrificed to do so?
This is the question with which ethicists are now wrestling.
“Utilitarianism tells us that we should always do what will produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people,” Ameen Barghi, a Rhodes scholar in ethics, recently explained.
In other words, if it comes down to a choice between sending you into a concrete wall or swerving into the path of an oncoming school bus, utilitarian programming would tell your car to send you into the concrete wall, thereby sacrificing your life to save that busload of people.
Vehicles could be programmed to kill you if there is enough “utility” in the decision.
With the idea of driverless cars growing and multiple manufacturers from Google, to inventor Elon Musk, to the Swedish car company Volvo all racing headlong toward driverless vehicles, this ethical debate is something that we all need to be aware of.
Follow Warner Todd Huston on Twitter: @warnerthuston. Email the author at email@example.com.