Archive for July, 2014

Chief Philosophy Officer

30th July 2014

The BBC are leading on a story about driverless cars today. It’s not the news that the UK are trying to catch up with the USA in permitting the technology access to public roads that caught my eye but rather the whole relationship of the engineering with what the technologists call ‘users’ and which I’d rather we called ‘people’.

A woman I once knew was convinced that robots will rule the world and this won’t help her sleep at night because where the car that drives itself differs from the clever coding in our phones and desktops is that the moral dimension of the technology, which often lurks just below the surface in other applications, becomes obvious in the car that drives itself. This technology has to have software direct it’s actions in circumstances that could lead to the death of people. And this software will have to direct actions which choose the death of one person rather than another when the driverless car is faced with hitting a nun on a zebra crossing or avoiding her and hitting a child on the pavement.

The trolley problem is a long standing thought experiment which puts a person in control of choosing the direction of a trolley, hurtling down a track towards a set of points. Switch the points to the left and a person tied to the track dies. Switch it to the right and two people tied to that track die. Easy choice to make, right? Endless variations make the choice less easy, ‘though. Imagine the two are both convicted murderers. Harder now? Imagine none of them are criminals but the single person is a relative. Really hard now. Would it be different if it was a cousin or a son? The complexity of the choices is reflected in the 2013 paper which showed 24% of professional philosophers unable to make a clear choice over what to do if they were in control of switching the points. And these people think about this stuff for a living.

I’m in awe of the clever technologists I work with every day. These are truly clever people who understand our customers businesses and build clever software to make them better. We’re all fortunate that life and death decisions don’t get made by our software but we do give time and thought to the dilemmas we occasionally come up against. I just hope someone at Google has done the same.