Autonomous vehicles force us to confront profound philosophical questionsby Philip Ball / November 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
The Trolley Problem always struck me as a little dubious. First posed in its modern form in 1967 as a conundrum in ethical philosophy, it generally runs something like this. You see a runaway trolley (of lethal size) rolling down a track towards five prone people, all of whom will die if it hits. But there is a lever that, if pulled, will divert the trolley onto a side track where just a single person lies in its path. Do you pull the lever?
There are now many variations. You could stop the trolley instead by pushing a fat man off a bridge into its path. You could just press a button which activates a mechanism that pushes him over. The fat man is a fiend who has put these people in peril. The person on the side track is a young child. And so on. There are all sorts of potential problems with these thought-experiments—can they be mapped onto real-world dilemmas? Can there be a meaningful optimum among so many variables?—but nonetheless they are popular in moral philosophy. The point here is to see whether there is any ethical calculus that can tell you what to do.
Yet at a talk I chaired recently by Yuval Noah Harari, today’s trending futurologist and author of the phenomenally successful book Sapiens, he argued that new technologies may take philosophical questions like this out of the cerebral sphere of the hypothetical and into the very real and harsh arena of the marketplace. “Even if you say in theory, yes this is the right thing to do, when you actually find yourself in that real-life situation, you very often behave in a completely different way,” Harari began. But if you are programming a particular decision into a machine, that is then precisely how the machine will behave come what may.
And this is what we are now having to do. For driverless cars, the Trolley Problem is no longer hypothetical. Faced with an impending and unavoidable accident, what should it do? What if the only options are to kill the driver and passengers or to kill pedestrians? “This is [now] a practical question of engineering, not a theoretical question of philosophy,” said Harari.
His answer? “Given that we live in a capitalist, neoliberal society, I guess somebody up…