AI on the Driving Seat?

New ethical and legal questions when it comes to self-driving cars

Hui Ding, Guanwen Li, Ana Pop Stefanija, Mattia Trino,  Natalie Walow, Manlin Zhu

Does AI need an introduction?

Year 2018. With the latest advancement of artificial intelligence and its increased usage in vast areas of societal life, the chances you asked yourself at least once “Will robots take over our jobs?”, “Who will be responsible for the self-driving cars if something bad happens?” are big.

Today, one of the most quoted examples is the development of autonomous vehicles, which could bring positive changes to traffic management, security and urban development, but also rise complex legal issues and ethical dilemmas. When talking about it, the first question we should keep in mind is “who is accountable when a self-driving car causes an accident?”. Meanwhile, try to think about Asimov’s first law: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”. Thus, how come that a robot built according to Asimov’s laws could cause an accident? Practice says, it already happens, unfortunately. Furthermore, in an algorithmically unforeseen situation, who would the car hit: the kid crossing the street, the old person at the sidewalk, or will it crash against a wall killing the person inside the car? It comes clear, at this point, that we are in front of many AI-related legal and ethical issues and there’s no easy solution.

Self-driving car

 What self-driving cars at an intersection would look like

Is there equal value of life?

Yuval Harari, in his book A Brief History of Tomorrow, describes a possible future in which human beings give all their life choices to computer algorithms, rising questions on whether humanism, liberalism and equality would still have any value.

Similarly, the dilemma puzzling policy makers and ethicists -how self-driving cars make decisions- seems a very representative one to describe the general boom and doom views on AI. For example, the latest ethic guidance on self-driving in Germany, gives absolute priority to humans’ life over animals and properties. It emphasizes the equal value of every human being. The debate might sound bizarre. However, this reflects how these new technologies are asking serious ethical questions.

Moreover, different States may have different values and regulations. Said that, should regulators unite and draft common standards and regulations to guarantee an ethical development and respect value of life?

Protect the passenger or the passer-by?

The first case of self-driving car causing fatalities confirm what an executive of Mercedes-Benz once stated -that according to the programming concept of self-driving cars, the algorithm will “decisively” choose to protect the people in the car when faced with such a moral dilemma. To minimize the possible damage at the critical moment, there are other factors to be considered when it comes to determine the “best choice”. If such “best choice” would be to save the person who is most likely to be protected, the risk is still enough to make potential users of autonomous vehicles feeling uncomfortable with purchasing one. This, is summed by a survey called “The social dilemma of autonomous vehicles”, which shows how respondents generally believe that self-driving cars should not sacrifice several people in the car to save a passer-by. Such an issue requires clear and detailed discussions that would be the basis for new regulations.

Studio Kronk

Studio Kronk

Is a conclusion possible at this point?

Certainly, the regulation and ethics concerns are non-exhausted and are expected to be clearer when regulation could be pursued evidence-based. By raising relevant questions, however, we hope to inspire the public to reflect on what the disruptive technology of AI can: fulfill some of our needs, solve many problems but unfortunately also create others. In this fast-paced and dynamic world, regulations are lagging behind in finding a balance between necessary guidance and sufficient flexibility to ensure benefits of both public and individuals as well as encouraging technical innovations. With self-driving cars speeding on our streets, we need to speed up with the regulation!


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