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Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

The biggest difficulty in self-driving cars is not batteries, fearful drivers, or expensive sensors, but what's known as the "trolley problem," a debate over who is to die and who saved should an autonomously driven vehicle end up with such a horrible choice on the road. And short of that, how will robotic vehicles navigate the countless other ethical decisions, small and large, executed by drivers as a matter of course?

In a paper, researchers at Carnegie Mellon and MIT propose a model that uses artificial intelligence and crowd sourcing to automate ethical decisions in self-driving cars. "In an emergency, how do you prioritize?" Ariel Procaccia, a professor at Carnegie Mellon, tells Axios.

The bottom line: The CMU-MIT model is only a prototype at this stage. But it or something like it will have to be mastered if fully autonomous cars are to become a reality.

"We are not saying that the system is ready for deployment. But it is a proof of concept, showing that democracy can help address the grand challenge of ethical decision making in AI," Procaccia said.

How they created the system: Procaccia's team used a model at MIT called the Moral Machine, in which 1.3m people gave their ethical vote to around 13 difficult, either-or choices in trolley-like driving scenarios. In all, participants provided 18.2 million answers. The researchers used artificial intelligence to teach their system the preferences of each voter, then aggregated them, creating a "distribution of societal preferences," in effect the rules of ethnical behavior in a car. The researchers could now ask the system any driving question that came to mind; it was as though they were asking the original 1.3 million participants to vote again.

A robot election: "When the system encounters a dilemma, it essentially holds an election, by deducing the votes of the 1.3 million voters, and applying a voting rule," Procaccia said. He said, "This allows us to give the following strong guarantee: the decision the system takes is likely to be the same as if we could go to each of the 1.3 million voters, ask for their opinions, and then aggregate their opinions into a choice that satisfies mathematical notions of social justice."

Go deeper

Dave Lawler, author of World
1 hour ago - World

Oxford and AstraZeneca's vaccine won't just go to rich countries

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While the 95% efficacy rates for the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines are great news for the U.S. and Europe, Monday's announcement from Oxford and AstraZeneca may be far more significant for the rest of the world.

Why it matters: Oxford and AstraZeneca plan to distribute their vaccine at cost (around $3-4 per dose), and have already committed to providing over 1 billion doses to the developing world. The price tags are higher for the Pfizer ($20) and Moderna ($32-37) vaccines.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

  1. Vaccines: Key information about the effective COVID-19 vaccines — Oxford University's 90%-effective vaccine.
  2. Health: U.S. coronavirus hospitalizations keep breaking recordsWhy we're numb to 250,000 coronavirus deaths — Americans line up for testing ahead of Thanksgiving.
  3. Travel: Air travel's COVID-created future — Over 1 million U.S. travelers flew on Friday, despite calls to avoid holiday travel.
  4. World: England to impose stricter regional systemU.S. coronavirus hotspots far outpacing Europe's — Portugal to ban domestic travel for national holidays.
  5. Economy: The biggest pandemic labor market drags.
  6. Sports: Coronavirus precautions leave college basketball schedule in flux.

Biden transition names first Cabinet nominees

Biden with John Kerry. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden on Monday unveiled his nominations for top national security positions in his administration, tapping former Secretary of State John Kerry as his climate czar and former deputy national security adviser Avril Haines as director of national intelligence.

Why it matters: Haines, if confirmed, would make history as the first woman to oversee the U.S. intelligence community. Biden also plans to nominate Alejandro Mayorkas to become the first Latino secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

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