Last year, researchers at MIT set up a curious website called the Moral Machine, which peppered visitors with casually gruesome questions about what an autonomous vehicle should do if its brakes failed as it sped toward pedestrians in a crosswalk: whether it should mow down three joggers to spare two children, for instance, or veer into a concrete barrier to save a pedestrian who is elderly, or pregnant, or homeless, or a criminal. In each grisly permutation, the Moral Machine invited visitors to cast a vote about who the vehicle should kill.
The project is a morbid riff on the “trolley problem,” a thought experiment that forces participants to choose between letting a runaway train kill five people or diverting its path to kill one person who otherwise wouldn’t die. But the Moral Machine gave the riddle a contemporary twist that got picked up by the New York Times, The Guardian and Scientific American and eventually collected some 18 million votes from 1.3 million would-be executioners.
That unique cache of data about the ethical gut feelings of random people on the internet intrigued Ariel Procaccia, an assistant professor in the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University, and he struck up a partnership with Iyad Rahwan, one of the MIT researchers behind the Moral Machine, as well as a team of other scientists at both institutions. Together they created an artificial intelligence, described in a new paper, designed to evaluate situations in which an autonomous car needs to kill someone — and to choose the same victim as the average Moral Machine voter.[…]