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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

28 U.S. citizens depart Afghanistan on Qatar Airways flight

Passengers board a Qatar Airways aircraft bound to Qatar at the airport in Kabul on September 10, 2021. Photo: Aamir Qureshi/AFP via Getty Images

The State Department on Saturday confirmed that a Qatar Airways charter flight left Kabul on Friday with 28 U.S. citizens and seven lawful permanent residents on board.

The big picture: Friday's flight is the third such airlift by Qatar Airways since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, AP reports.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Smaller than expected "Justice for J6" rally met with large police presence

Police officers watch as demonstrators gather for the "Justice for J6" rally in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 18, 2021. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

A few hundred demonstrators were met by a heavy law enforcement presence on Saturday at the "Justice for J6" rally outside the fenced-off U.S. Capitol, AP reports.

The latest: Four people were arrested at the rally, including one person with a gun, one with a knife and two with outstanding warrants, per the U.S. Capitol Police.

DHS to increase deportation flights to Haiti from Del Rio

Migrants walk across the Rio Grande River carrying supplies back to a makeshift encampment under the international bridge between Del Rio, Texas, and Acuña, Mexico. Officials are struggling to provide food, water, shelter and sanitation, forcing migrants to cross the Rio Grande several times per day for basic necessities. Photo: Jordan Vonderhaar via Getty Images

The Department of Homeland Security on Saturday announced plans to ramp up deportation flights to Haiti out of the small Texas border town Del Rio, starting as soon as Sunday.

Why it matters: Reports have emerged of more than 10,000 migrants, primarily from Haiti, crowded in a temporary camp under the international bridge in Del Rio. Hoping to find refuge in the United States, they've had to bear with filthy conditions and the scorching sun for days, per an NBC News affiliate.

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