Trolley Problem and Autonomous Vehicles

Trolley Problem and Autonomous Vehicles

Trolley Problem is a famous thought experiment in Ethics and behavioral economics and psychology have been using this for a while. There are many versions of the problem but lets take few examples.

There is a trolley barreling down on the railway track and there are five workers busy working on the track. The trolley is moving towards them. You are standing near to a lever and if you pull this lever the trolley switches to different track but that track has one person walking on the track with headphones on enjoying the music unable to notice the incoming trolley.

There are two options
1) Don’t do anything and trolley will kill all 5 workers.
2) Pull the trolley and only one person would get killed.

As per various surveys conducted majority of the people will pull the lever killing only one person. The math seems to be simple that it is good to save five people than saving only one. Now there can various scenarios created which will lead to different answers from people.

This used to be a theoretical ethical problem for a long time. With advent of autonomous vehicles this problem has become reality. Now when an autonomous vehicle is in this situation where it has to decide between saving the passenger in the car or saving 5 kids on that road. What should an algorithm do? If it saves the kids on the road considering a similar judgement like the people who took the survey for the trolley problem. Will anyone buy autonomous cars when they know in case of extreme scenarios like these the passenger inside the cars are not safe. If it takes care of the passenger irrespective of the situation,is it going to ethical?

This has become an ethical issue that will need governments and standard bodies to decide on the rules that each of the autonomous vehicle makers will have to abide by. I don’t know how these rules will decide various scenarios. Like if the passenger in the vehicle is 80 years old and the people on the road are school going kids, then will kids get the priority. Else the passenger in the car is Elon Musk and people on the road are homeless poor people, then will Elon Musk get the priority. How would machines and algorithm get out these situations.

I am not an expert in this area but how machines and algorithm will implement these ethical decisions going to be interesting and AI may have solutions to these moral dilemmas

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