Can machines tell right from wrong?

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The growing popularity of self-driving cars is already giving headaches to lawyers and legislators.

Self-driving cars are enjoying increasingly better press and attracting a growing interest. Industry is keeping a close eye on the achievements of Tesla and Google. The latter has been releasing regular reports showing that autonomous vehicles are clocking up ever more miles without failing or endangering traffic safety. A growing sense of optimism regarding the future of such vehicles can be felt all across the automotive industry. Their mass production will soon be launched by Mercedes, Ford, Citroen, and Volvo.

Nearly every major manufacturer today has the capacity to build a self-driving car, test it and prepare it for traffic. But this is only a start. Demand for such vehicles and the revenues derived from their sale will continue to be limited for a while due to the complex legal and… ethical questions that need to be resolved.

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Autonomous cars market share will reach 13% of all vehicles on the road by 2025, with a worth of $42 billion, and reach $77 billion by 2035, accounting for 25% of all cars. Source: BCG

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Top three reasons for buying fully autonomous vehicle. Source: BCG

Algorithms of life and death

Briefly put, in ethical terms there are three theoretical programming possibilities that will largely determine the vehicle’s response.

In one of them, the assumption is that, what counts in the face of an accident and a threat to human life is the joint safety of all people involved (i.e. the driver, the passengers and the child on the road).

An alternative approach puts a premium on the life of pedestrians.

A third one gives priority to protecting the life of the driver and the passengers.

The actual response depends on the algorithm selected by a given car maker.

Recently, a Mercedes representative stated that his company’s approach is to value the safety of autonomous vehicle passengers the most. OK, but would programming a car in such a way be legal? Probably not. It is therefore difficult to view such declarations as binding. However, this does not make the liability for vehicle algorithms any less critical. And somebody will have to bear that liability.

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Autonomous car accident decision algorithm. Option: the optimal safety outcome for all parties. Source: MCHRBN.net

The research that kills demand?

If these examples are indeed emblematic of today’s ethical confusion, corporations cannot be very happy.

Until prospective buyers are fully certain what to expect when a self-driving car (which in theory should be completely safe) causes an accident while they are behind the wheel, one can hardly expect the demand for such products to pick up. People will not trust the technology unless they feel protected by law. But will lawmakers be able to foresee all possible scenarios and situations?

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Dashboard of futuristic autonomous car — no steering wheel. Nissan IDS Concept. Source: Nissan

The future is safer

Even today, autonomous vehicle manufacturers love to invoke studies which show that self-driving cars will substantially reduce accident rates. For instance, according to the consultancy KPMG, by 2030 in the United Kingdom alone, autonomous vehicles will save the lives of ca. 2,500 accident victims. Unfortunately, such projections remain purely theoretical. Clearly, roads will for a long time still be filled with conventional vehicles without electronic drivers.

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95% of crashes are caused by human error. Source: Google

Time for changes

Related articles:

- Machine Learning. Computers coming of age

- Artificial Intelligence as a foundation for key technologies

- Artificial Intelligence for all

- End of the world we know, welcome to the digital reality

- The brain — the device that becomes obsolete

- On TESLA and the human right to make mistakes

Written by

Technology is my passion. Head of Microsoft Services CEE. Private opinions only

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