Recently, I had a conversation regarding driverless cars’ decision core and the parameters they currently do not take into consideration when analyzing possible outcomes while trying to avoid a collision. We were arguing upon the ethical differences around the globe regarding which lives values the most among the people involved in the accident. On the one hand, we had a pedestrian and on the other hand, we had a passenger. In our discussion, we referred to several studies from different countries were factors such as the age of both pedestrian and passenger will determine who´s death will be more ethically correct.
Some studies point the surveys inclined to favor the youngest in contrast with other surveys exhibiting the opposite idea. The different surveyed regions showed results too dissimile and the available research it is too scarce to adopt an inflexible posture. We finally agreed it was like the tale of a father, a son, and a donkey. In which every other individual they crossed in their path will criticize them no matter of who was riding the donkey, or if any of them was doing it at all. Unfortunately, in the case we were discussing the focus point was not who is more comfortable but who lives and who dies.
I was extremely surprised when my interlocutor said: “Anyhow, driverless cars, once introduced into society, will drop the volume of deaths because of traffic accidents; at the end, no matter who lives and who dies but the number of deaths are being saved from the current stats”.
I was pretty worried about my friend not being a regular person, with a regular job. This person is someone highly educated in business, sciences, and public relations; whose job allows him to influence the actual implementation of developing and research policies, to budget a portfolio of research and innovation projects. A person it’s dedicated to connecting people around the world to facilitate ideas flow and project executions.
Then I wondered if I was the one not seeing an imperfect decision core of an artificial intelligence system was actually capable of lowering the number of deaths by traffic accidents regardless of who dies and who doesn’t. After all, these systems are superior in their imitation of our own decision making in the same situation; by being able to calculate hundreds if not thousands of scenarios while in the moment of distress. And the factors those systems take into consideration are just a detail in the equation.
Nevertheless, I thought about the previous technological and scientific advances we had experienced as humanity; thought about their methodological frameworks and concluded: then why we wasted money and effort with ethical approvals?, If vaccines are intended to lower the number of deaths by a particular virus, or emergent medical treatments; why do we need extense trial periods?, some of them even before experimenting with humans. Why do we need to identify and communicate limitations and secondary effects on our drugs?. Why pilots and airlines have had documented and turned into endless checklists every single parameter influencing a decision?.
So I understood, at least for the pilot example, that accidents should be reproducible in order to assess all outcomes – including the actual one that took place-; and I comprehended that responsibility transference its the real issue, accountability. Who it’s responsible for the deaths at accidents where driverless cars are involved? Like doctors are in medicine as prescriptions expenders, or like the pilots/airlines when a plane crash occurs – a closer example to the one I am referring to in this post -.
Are we truly that comfortable with the idea of twenty deaths instead of hundreds when those twenty, depending on the factors parametrized in the driverless car´s decision-making core, might be typified as murder?. This is not an inaccurate thought. It can manifest by prioritizing with a given weight the value of the passenger (the one who bought the driverless car, paid the dealer, pays the insurance…), and a given – just smaller enough – value to the pedestrian or another driver involved in a sinister; to balance the outcome in favour of one side or the other. And yet radio advertisements are currently highlighting the possibility of sleeping while commuting to work when workers live in a city diffrerent from their workplace using a driverless car.
Please do not get me wrong, I am not promoting any conspiracy theory or promoting freezing fear upon technological progress. On the contrary; my intention goes more attuned with arising the need for a technical framework for artificial intelligence designers based on ethics and moral; highlighting the need for speed up our laws and public policies to meet our current realities, to address possible negative outcome given the introduction of new tech in anticipation to the actual events. I am tuned with responsible design as a way of accomplishing justice from the early stages of design.
How to reference: Varona, Daniel. 2019. Expendable deaths. www.danielvarona.ca [Year of Creation:2019] http://www.danielvarona.ca/2019/06/14/expendable-deaths/ [Consulted on: DDMMYY].