New research argues morality can be programmed into driverless cars

Remember the Moral Machine? The program from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) aimed to collect data from users on a variety of ethical dilemmas over driverless cars. Given the choice between killing pedestrians or crashing the car and killing its occupants, for instance, which would be the better course of action?

Now, a new study from researchers at the University of Osnabruck argues self-driving vehicles can be programmed for the big moral decisions after creating a ‘value of life’ model for every object, whether human, animal, or inanimate, that could be involved in an accident.

Research participants were placed in the driver’s seat of a virtual car heading down a suburban road before obstacles were presented in the two lanes ahead of the driver, with participants asked which of the two they would save. To qualify for the test itself, participants to complete a trial setting where they had to avoid pylons, in order to immerse themselves with the VR setting. Users were given a slow and fast speed setting to make their decisions.

Issues and biases in the study were taken care of, for instance assessing whether users would normally use the left hand or right hand driving lane, or whether participants would more likely stay in the starting line or panic and move across – an omission or panic reaction bias.

“We argue that the high contextual dependency of moral decisions and the large number of ethically relevant decisions that self-driving cars will have to make, call for ethical models based on human decisions made in comparable situations,” the report concludes. “In the confined scope of unavoidable collisions in road traffic, simple value of life models approximate human moral decisions well.

“With respect to trust in the public eye, their simplicity could constitute a key advantage over more sophisticated models, such as neural networks.”

You can read the full article, published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, here.

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