Feb 1, 2019

Why the "trolley problem" is the wrong way to think about AVs

People hanging off a streetcar. Photo: Lisa Larsen/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

The "trolley problem" sets up a quandary: whether to let a trolley stay the course and hit numerous people, or redirect it and hit just one person. Recently, researchers have designed similar thought experiments around AVs.

Why it matters: AVs are being taught to drive safely and avoid harm entirely, just as human drivers are. But media coverage of these experiments, which assume unrealistic expectations for AV technology and suggest that AVs really could face such choices, may be contributing to public distrust in AVs.

What’s happening: In a recent MIT study, thousands of participants were asked whether an AV should kill a driver or a pedestrian, a homeless man or an executive, and so on, sorting people into categories as specific as male athlete, female doctor, small child, or baby in a stroller.

  • Participants' choices were assembled into a preference scale, ranking who is most preferable to spare or kill.
  • This study and earlier research have been widely publicized as capturing essential ethical insights that should be built into AVs.

The National Science Foundation, meanwhile, funded a group of philosophers working on computer modeling of how AVs could respond to different scenarios, depending on their ethical coding.

Between the lines:

  • There is no evidence that human drivers encounter instant decisions between two fatal outcomes with no alternative options. Programming AVs to anticipate such scenarios would not improve safety.
  • "Driverless dilemmas" mischaracterize AV capabilities. It's unlikely an AV could detect personal details, let alone a person's profession. Instead, AVs are being taught to track everything around them, and swerve or slow down to avoid hitting anyone.
  • Publicity of this research could be contributing to public distrust of AVs. It suggests that AVs will be unrealistically influenced by the ethics of their developers.

Yes, but: While AVs are not likely to face forced-choice ethical dilemmas, they may be taught to prioritize detecting and avoiding vulnerable road users, like pedestrians, over stationary objects, like parked cars.

  • In that sense, ethical choices would factor into programming, but in a context that aligns with how people are taught to drive in order to avoid harm.

Sam Anthony is co-founder and CTO of Perceptive Automata. Julian De Freitas is a doctoral candidate in psychology at Harvard University.

Go deeper: Read the full paper responding to driverless dilemmas.

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  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 5 p.m. ET: 65,691 — Total deaths: 30,438 — Total recoveries: 139,263.
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  4. State updates: Alaska is latest state to issue a stay-at-home order — New York is trying to nearly triple its hospital capacity in less than a month and has moved its presidential primary to June 23. Some Midwestern swing voters that supported Trump's handling of the virus less than two weeks ago are now balking at his call for the U.S. to be "opened up" by Easter.
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Infant dies after testing positive for coronavirus in Chicago

Hospital staff working inside a COVID-19 screening tent in Chicago on March 26. Photo: Jim Vondruska/NurPhoto via Getty Images

An infant less than one year old died in Chicago, Illinois after testing positive for the novel coronavirus, the state health department said on Saturday.

Why it matters: The death would mark the first reported infant mortality from COVID-19 in the U.S. The fatality rate for the novel coronavirus in the U.S. is highest among those over 85 years old, per the CDC.

Trump weighs quarantine of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

President Trump said on Saturday he is considering a "short term" quarantine of New York, New Jersey and parts of Connecticut — states that have already taken steps to quarantine residents and promote social distancing.

The big picture: With 112,000 people infected, the U.S. has the most COVID-19 cases in the world, exceeding China and Italy, per data from Johns Hopkins. A second wave of American cities, including Boston, Detroit, New Orleans and Philadelphia, are reporting influxes of cases.

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