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Study Sheds Light on Self-Driving Cars and Public Ethics

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Posted June 24, 2016

As driverless cars filling city roads draws ever closer to becoming a reality, researchers intensify their efforts to understand the implications of regulators and car manufacturers pre-setting vehicles with specific safety rules.

Everyone wants more safety on the roads, but are we prepared to put our own lives at risk to minimize casualties? According to a new study, published in the journal Science, the public is currently torn between saying “yes” to utilitarian safety rules being pre-programmed, and “no” to buying such vehicles themselves. Image credit: Steve Jurvetson via Wikimedia.org, CC BY 2.0.

Everyone wants more safety on the roads, but are we prepared to put our own lives at risk to minimize casualties? According to a new study, published in the journal Science, the public is currently torn between saying “yes” to utilitarian safety rules being pre-programmed, and “no” to buying such vehicles themselves. Image credit: Steve Jurvetson via Wikimedia.org, CC BY 2.0.

One of the major questions ethicists and the public face is whether these cars should be programmed with utilitarian principles set to save as many lives as possible, or should they protect the passengers regardless of the number of potential casualties.

To find out what the average person thinks about the issue, researchers led by Iyad Rahwan, an associate professor at the MIT Media Lab, conducted six surveys, using the online Mechanical Turks public-opinion tool, between June 2015 and November 2015.

Results show that people are generally in favour of programming vehicles to minimize injury and death on the road, but are not likely to buy such vehicles themselves.

“Most people want to live in a world where cars will minimize casualties,” said Rahwan. “But everybody want their own car to protect them at all costs.”

For instance, as many as 76 percent of respondents believe that it is more moral for a driverless vehicle, should such a circumstance arise, to sacrifice one passenger to save 10 pedestrians.

But when asked whether they would themselves buy a vehicle pre-programmed with government regulations based on utilitarian ethics, the survey-takers said they’d be only one-third as likely to do so, as opposed to buying a car that could be programmed in any fashion.

For the time being, write the authors in their paper, there seems to be no easy way to design algorithms that would reconcile moral values and personal self-interest, which paradoxically could increase casualties by postponing the adoption of a safer technology.

Two caveats worth mentioning about the study is that the aggregate safety of autonomous vehicles on the road is not yet determined, and public polling on this issue is still in its infancy – people may very well change their minds as more data emerges in the future.

Having said that, concludes Rahwan, “I think it was important to not just have a theoretical discussion of this, but to actually have an empirically informed discussion”.

Source: phys.org.

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