How Are We Programming Ethics Into Technology?

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How do we approach programming ethics into technology?

Business Insider recently captured people’s attention with an anxiety-provoking headline that sounds like a line from a sci-fi thriller: “Self-driving cars are already deciding who to kill.” Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the people programming the self-driving cars are deciding who to kill. How are they making their decisions? How do we handle programming ethics into technology?

Programming Ethics into Technology

Let’s say a self-driving car enters a situation where it’s forced to hit one of two pedestrians. Which one would it collide with? Maybe the choice lies between a group of pedestrians and another vehicle. What then?

People have a tendency to think that computers are somehow more objective than people. However, it’s people who program the automated systems in cars or other forms of increasingly sophisticated technology. Programmers work while influenced by their preferences and biases, and the culture they’re a part of and its values.

There are a number of important issues to consider:

  • Who oversees this kind of programming work? Maybe there will be a governing or regulatory body, an ethics panel, an international committee, a poll taken among company employees, a vote among the general public. Who’s to say what’s ethical and what isn’t when it comes to the decisions that get programmed into these machines? Even when it isn’t a matter of life or death, machines can still make decisions that prove costly for some people more than others. Will there be a set of agreed-upon standards, and if so, how will they get established?
  • Who is held accountable? With self-driving cars, it’s expected (at least at this point) that human drivers will remain alert and take over when necessary, overriding the system. What if they aren’t able to intervene on time, either through fault of their own or because of circumstances outside their control? What if the way in which they intervene actually makes things worse? Maybe the self-driving car would have made a better decision (though we’d have to determine what ‘better’ is). To what extent are programmers and manufacturers accountable for the decisions machines make? Along with considerations about ethics, there are a number of questions about liability in the case of accidents or criminal acts.
  • To what extent is it helpful to compare the behavior of machines and people? People sometimes puzzle over ethical situations and consider what choice they’d make between two difficult, painful actions. But how they say they’d act doesn’t necessarily reflect what they’d actually do when confronted with a given situation. This is particularly true if it’s an emergency, and they have to make an almost instantaneous decision. Can the machines in some way behave more ethically than people? Is human behavior going to be the standard for how machines should behave in a given scenario?
  • What’s the degree of transparency consumers should demand? What should manufacturers be obligated to tell us about the way they’ve programmed cars and other machinery? What warnings or explanations should they provide to help us make more informed choices?
  • Will people become more complacent? With technology taking over various sophisticated decisions, to what extent will people become complacent and, without further reflection, allow computers to make choices for them? We need to consider the role people would play, the degree of oversight they’d have over the way machines make decisions.

Increasingly sophisticated technology causes us to evaluate our ethics, question the way we make choices, and argue over the decisions we’re willing to hand over to machines versus the decisions we need or want to make on our own. Self-driving cars and other sophisticated technologies have the potential to cut down on a great deal of human error. But what goes into their decision-making processes, especially when it comes to weightier life and death issues?

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