Whom should self-driving cars protect in an accident?

Oct 25, 2018

THE TROLLEY problem used to be an obscure question in philosophical ethics. It runs as follows: a trolley, or a train, is speeding down a track towards a junction. Some moustache-twirling evildoer has tied five people to the track ahead, and another person to the branch line. You are standing next to a lever that controls the junction. Do nothing, and the five people will be killed. Pull the lever, and only one person dies. What is the ethical course of action?

The excitement around self-driving cars, though, has made the problem famous. A truly self-driving car, after all, will have to be given ethical instructions of some sort by its human programmers. That has led to a miniature boom for the world’s small band of professional ethicists, who suddenly find themselves in hot demand.

In a paper just published in Nature, a team of psychologists and computer scientists describe a...

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