Examine the theory and ethics driving development and its links with the colonial project.
When a driver slams on the brakes to avoid hitting a pedestrian crossing the road illegally, she is making a moral decision that shifts risk from the pedestrian to the people in the car. Self-driving cars might soon have to make such ethical judgments on their own — but settling on a universal moral code for the vehicles could be a thorny task, suggests a survey of 2.3 million people from around the world.
The largest ever survey of machine ethics1, published today in Nature, finds that many of the moral principles that guide a driver’s decisions vary by country. For example, in a scenario in which some combination of pedestrians and passengers will die in a collision, people from relatively prosperous countries with strong institutions were less likely to spare a pedestrian who stepped into traffic illegally.
“People who think about machine ethics make it sound like you can come up with a perfect set of rules for robots, and what we show here with data is that there are no universal rules,” says Iyad Rahwan, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge and a co-author of the study.
The survey, called the Moral Machine, laid out 13 scenarios in which someone’s death was inevitable. Respondents were asked to choose who to spare in situations that involved a mix of variables: young or old, rich or poor, more people or fewer.
People rarely encounter such stark moral dilemmas, and some critics question whether the scenarios posed in the quiz are relevant to the ethical and practical questions surrounding driverless cars. But the study’s authors say that the scenarios stand in for the subtle moral decisions that drivers make every day. They argue that the findings reveal cultural nuances that governments and makers of self-driving cars must take into account if they want the vehicles to gain public acceptance.
At least one company working on self-driving cars — the German carmaker Audi — says that the survey could help prompt an important discussion about these issues. (Other firms with autonomous-vehicle programmes, including auto manufacturer Toyota and technology companies Waymo and Uber, declined to comment on the findings.) And Nicholas Christakis, a social scientist at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, is fascinated by the results