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Driverless cars, algorithms and the ethics of valuing of human life

Today, RDM Group have unveiled the Lutz Pathfinder, a prototype driverless car. This is to be the first driverless car tested on public roads in Britain, after legislation was passed a few months ago to allow their operation.

Yet there are unresolved questions about the ethics underlying the algorithms which direct driverless cars; and, in particular, how they weigh the value of human life. Despite what other sources might say, these are not really new problems—but they are, nonetheless, interesting.

In this post, I’ll draw on some historic examples of similar problems, and see if they help us to make sense of this 21st century quandary.

Back in 1948, the Cold War between the Eastern Bloc and the Western Bloc was beginning to heat up… or cool down, depending on how you look at it. Either way, the US Air Force wanted the capacity to blow the Soviet Union to smithereens, should it come to that. So the US Air Force asked mathematician Edwin Paxson to use mathematical modelling to work out how best to co-ordinate a first nuclear strike.

Paxson and his team set about their work, considering almost half a million configurations of bombs and bombers. They took into account dozens of variables including countermeasures that might be deployed, targets that could be selected, and routes the bombers should fly.

In 1950, after months of work and billions of calculations, Paxson delivered his verdict in a now-famous report called Strategic Bombing Systems Analysis. His solution: fly a nuclear device to Russia in a cheap propeller plane, surrounded by a large number of similar decoy planes. The huge swarm would overwhelm Russia’s defensive capabilities and, although planes would be lost, the likelihood that the armed plane would be destroyed would be exceptionally low. One of his team described the strategy as “filling the Russian skies with empty bombers of only minor usefulness”.

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The response to this recommendation was not positive: Paxson was vilified. The Air Force responded with a combination of bewilderment and indignation: how could Paxson possibly suggest sending Air Crews on a suicide mission in cheap rickety planes? After all, war surely meant doing everything possible to protect allied servicemen while killing enemy servicemen—preferably using the leanest and meanest cutting-edge technology available.

But Paxson was vilified not because he gave the wrong answer: rather, he gave the right answer to the wrong question. His method was the way to cause the greatest amount of damage to the enemy for the lowest system cost—but it didn’t consider the value of human life.

Or, rather, it didn’t consider the value of the lives of the American Air Crews. Nobody thought for a moment that it should consider the value of Soviet lives. Of course, had it considered all human life as equal, it seems hard to imagine how a nuclear strike could ever come to have been proposed at all.

There’s a scene in the fourth season of The West Wing in which President Bartlet is considering intervening against genocide in Aaron Sorkin’s favourite fictional country, Equatorial Kundu. In frustration at his limited power to right the wrongs of the world, he muses

Why is a Kundunese life worth less to me than an American life?

Will Bailey, working as a speechwriter and having been in the show for a handful of episodes, gives the ballsy response

I don’t know, sir, but it is.

What is the value of human life?

This is a deeply philosophical question, but it’s also one that needs answering for practical purposes: without a value, we can’t make cost-effectiveness calculations to answer all sorts of important questions.

The US Environmental Agency pegs the value of a life at about £6m. The airline industry uses a value of around £2m. The UK Department of Transport puts it around £1m.

Most Western medical organisations, NICE included, price a year of life lived in full health at about £20-30,000. That’s a little tricksy, because—based on life expectancy—that means the UK value of a 20 year-old woman’s life is about £1.5m, versus about £1.1m for a 30 year-old man. It also means that a baby girl in East Dorset is worth about £360,000 more than a baby boy in Glasgow. And if you’ve a disability, your life is worth less than someone of equal life expectancy without a disability.

Variation in the value of lives, whether by gender, age, or nationality feels inherently wrong… but is it actually wrong? Or is it the reality of the world we live in?

So what of driverless cars? Effectively, they can be considered as robots, and we have an established set of laws for robots: science fiction writer Isaac Asimov proposed three laws of robotics in 1942, the first of which is

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Like much political legislation, this robotic law is well-intentioned but functionally useless in the situation we’re considering.

You may already be familiar with the “trolley problem”: a runaway train is heading down tracks towards a group of five people. A woman is stood next to a lever. Pulling the lever will shift the points in the track and send the train barrelling instead towards a single person. Should the woman pull the lever?

Some ethicists would say the woman should pull the lever: from a utilitarian viewpoint, she is obliged to reduce the number of people who come to harm. Others would say that the woman should not pull the lever: a deontological view might hold that the act of pulling the lever would make her complicit in the killing of another human being.

Replace the woman with a robot, and the robot is forced to break Asimov’s First Law of Robotics no matter what action it takes (or doesn’t take). We’re effectively entrapping the robot.

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Perhaps it isn’t surprising that we haven’t “solved” an ethical problem for robots given that we haven’t “solved” it for humans. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a problem. In humans, we can rely on the free agency of the individual and judge them post hoc.

Robots, at least for the time being, are not sentient. They do our bidding, and we must decide our bidding in advance. There is no ‘in the moment’ free agency to rely upon—we will know (or at least will be able to know) with certainty the action that will be taken in advance.

So what are driverless cars to do? If a driverless car finds itself in a situation where it must choose between a high speed collision with a pedestrian or with a wall, which should it choose? From the point of view of the car, should the lives of the pedestrian and the car’s occupant be of equal value? Or should the car prioritise the life of the owner? And what if the individual pedestrian is replaced by a group of pedestrians? Or a group of children?

It could be argued that the car should prioritise the lives of its driver, since that it what humans tend to do in practice. Or it could be argued that the car should value everyone equally, and protect the greatest possible number of lives possible, since that utilitarian view is how we might want humans to act. Or it could be argued that the risk should be borne entirely by the person choosing to operate the vehicle, and so the car should act to prioritise those outside of it.

Some writers have suggested that driverless cars will be forced to prioritise the life of the driver due to market forces—no-one will buy a car which might decide to kill them. Yet, of course, there is also society and legislature to consider—and it seems unlikely that cars which did not give due weight to the life of pedestrians and others outside the car would ever gain societal acceptance.

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And so, driverless cars look like they’re stuck in an ethical rut: they can neither prioritise the life of the driver nor prioritise the life of the pedestrian. So what can it do in the “wall or pedestrian” situation? Choose randomly? That also seems… unethical.

We’ve reach an impasse.

Much is written about the ethics of self-driving cars in these extreme situations, and they are interesting philosophical and ethical questions to ponder. But they aren’t particularly helpful in a practical sense. Much like Edwin Paxson, we being compelled to consider the wrong question.

One of the flaws in the trolley problem is that humans are rarely in a situation with two clear, diametrically opposed options. We have a range of choices available to us, not just pulling or not pulling the lever that controls the points. Maybe we could shout a warning to the people in the path of the train; maybe we could signal to the driver to stop; maybe we somehow derail the train.

And this is the first reason why the question is wrong: the car can take more than two actions. It can sound its horn; it can perform an emergency stop; it can can deploy an airbag; it can hand control back to a human. The dichotomous choice is unrealistic.

In addition, the technology isn’t at the standard required to assess a situation in the detail the problem describes—and the programming in the car will probably never consider the situation. It is unlikely that any self-driving car will be programmed with a “crash self” option. It will have a number of reactions to stimuli, including “do not crash into pedestrians” and “do not crash into walls”, and will respond in the event of a conflict probably by avoiding the pedestrians rather than the wall: just like a human, it would not know at the decision point what the outcome would be for the human driver, but there would no doubt be advanced protective mechanisms in place just as in non-driverless cars. In fact, by allowing the car to crash in a predictable way, the safety of the occupants can probably be increased even in the event of a crash.

Your washing machine at home is pretty much autonomous in operation. Does it prioritise preventing fire or preventing flood in the event of a malfunction? I have no idea what mine does, but I suspect that the situation is so far out of normal operating limits that it isn’t specifically programmed to do either. Perhaps the same is true of driverless cars.

It’s also worth considering that this sort of problem isn’t as new as it appears. Cars are not the first autonomous vehicles: aeroplanes have used autopilot for decades. Self-parking cars have been around for years. Both of these hand control back to the driver when the situation becomes difficult; perhaps that will turn out to be the solution for driverless cars, too.

I argue that we simply don’t need to worry too much about the ethics of driverless cars. They present an interesting philosophical discussion, but it isn’t a practical consideration at the moment, and nor will it be for a long time to come. By the time it does become an issue, incremental development which have occurred in the meantime will likely point us in the right direction.

For now, I’m just looking forward to sitting back and enjoying the ride!



Many thanks to Amrit Tigga for the wonderful cartoons he's drawn to illustrate this blog post.

This 2,298th post was filed under: News and Comment, , .

Art of the Renaissance and anatomy

Wendy and I had a wander round the Scottish National Gallery last weekend, as we often do when we visit Edinburgh. I know really nothing about art; Wendy knows a bit more. But we both enjoy a few minutes which take our minds of anything that bears any resemblance to stuff we do at work.

As I wandered, I was reminded of two research papers, one of which I’ve intended to feature on here for years, and the other which came out only last month.

The first was written by a neurosurgery registrar I once worked with. I’m sure he’s a high-flying surgeon these days. It’s from JRSM (where else), and is called Brain ‘imaging’ in the Renaissance. He wrote about the resemblance of Renaissance paintings to brain anatomy. I like this paper because of the slightly off-kilter thought process it would take to notice these things, and also because—in reference to Gerard David’s painting of the Transfiguration of Christ—it contains one of my favourite paragraphs from any paper:

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Gerard David’s painting of the ‘Transfiguration of Christ’ resembles a coronal section of the brain. We find again the concept of the ventricles as the abode of the soul. God is represented in the third ventricle, with Elijah and Moses in the temporal horns of the lateral ventricles. Jesus, conduit between the Word of God and the human race, resembles the brain stem/spinal cord, conveying the message from the brain to limbs and organs.

Even with the annotated images in the paper, I can’t even begin to buy the argument that there’s any intentional resemblance (or, indeed, much of a resemblance at all). But that doesn’t matter: the fantastical combination of high-level anatomy, religion and art in those sentences tickles my grey cells no end. It’s like worlds are colliding right in front of my eyes.

The second paper is similar, but has a slightly different—though equally bizarre—though process behind it. Consider, if you will, Pinturicchio’s Madonna and Child with St John the Baptist:

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Clearly, there’s only one reaction anyone could have when examining this masterful artwork from centuries ago: what the hell is going on with Madonna’s little finger?! And it’s not just Madonna as painted by Pinturicchio that has something funny with the fifth finger—Botticelli’s Portrait of a Young Man depicts something very similar:

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Having noticed the weird finger in a load of art from the same period, Lazerri et al undertook a systematic reappraisal of the fifth finger in Renaissance paintings, in which they try to explain the funny finger from a medical or anatomical perspective. They don’t really come to much of a conclusion. They say that lots of subjects of Renaissance paintings seem to have camptodactyly of the little finger, while others might just be holding their little finger in a weird position.

But the conclusion doesn’t really matter. I’m just in awe that someone can notice something so offbeat, and then pursue it right through to researching, writing and publishing a paper in a medical journal. That takes a serious degree of self-confidence in your own random thoughts. Brilliant!

This 2,297th post was filed under: Health, , , .

What’s in my daily work bag?

Over the last few years, there’s been a growing trend in business publications and productivity websites to ask notable people what they carry in the bag they cart to work each day. These people always seem to have a well-organised kit of polished shiny expensive things, and an astounding absence of junk. I struggle to relate to this. So, to redress the balance, here’s what’s in my bag.

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This is my bag. It’s a Jasper Conran briefcase that Wendy bought me a few years ago. It’s dark brown, and I usually carry it while wearing a black or grey suit, which probably counts as a fashion crime.

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This is my Lenovo N20p Chromebook, which is the laptop I carry most often. I do have a work-issued ThinkPad, but this is faster, lighter, has better battery life, and does most of the things I need to do on the move—even more so since the Office webapps were upgraded. The battery life is so strong that I don’t bother carrying the power cord.

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I usually carry a stack of these cardboard document wallets with papers related to projects or meetings in them. This one is a bit atypical: I usually label them with a sticker in the top-right corner with the title, place, date and time of the meeting they relate to. After the meeting, I typically over-label the sticker and reuse the folder. This is a great system because it is so flexible: it doesn’t feel ridiculous turning up to a meeting with a stuffed folder, or with a folder containing only one sheet. And with top-right labelling, I can see where I should be and when by just flicking through the stack of folders in my bag.

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This is a Moleskine Large Ruled Cahier Journal. This is what I take notes in. I usually have about three of them on the go at any one time so that there’s always one to hand. The paper in them is great quality Moleskine stuff, which is great because I like to write with inky pens. The cardboard cover is just about sturdy enough not to get bent out of shape in my bag. And it’s just about informal enough to doodle in, and still formal enough to scribble down minutes when required. It’s a great product.

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These are some individually wrapped Boots lens wipes. I have these secreted all over the place. There’s nothing worse than having a giant smudge in the middle of your glasses and no easy way of cleaning it off.

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This is an M&S umbrella; I can’t link to it as they don’t sell this model any more. It goes up, it goes down, and it keeps me dry. I’ve never yet seen a profile of someone’s work bag which includes an umbrella, which strikes me as slightly baffling.

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This is a random plastic wotsit I found in the bottom of my bag. I’ve no idea what its function in life is or was. I probably won’t throw it out though, just in case.

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This is an EasyAcc PowerBank which I rarely use, but which occasionally saves my bacon if my phone has run out of juice. When the PowerBank is charged, it seems to hold its charge forever, so it works well as an emergency top-up device that I can just leave rattling round my bag.

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These are pharmaceuticals (paracetamol and ibuprofen), busting the stereotype that men don’t carry this sort of thing. I very rarely have recourse to use them, but I’m always very glad I have them when I need them. These particular ones came from Boots, and are about 20p more expensive than the equivalents in the major supermarkets. I must have been feeling flush when I bought them.

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The Control of Communicable Diseases Manual is a book a refer to constantly, and this is the brand new 20th edition that I bought only last week. I had the good fortune to met its esteemed editor, David Haymann, once—though didn’t find out that it was him until afterwards. I dread to think what smalltalk I subjected him to. Sorry.

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This is an empty flash drive that I carry just in case. This particular one is from Maplin (they don’t seem to sell this variety any more), and was bought in a crisis when I couldn’t find any of my 6,000 other flash drives. My talent for losing these things knows no bounds.

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This is a pair of engraved steel collar stiffeners. I’ve no idea how they got in my bag, but then: who doesn’t have a pair of engraved steel collar stiffeners in the bottom of their bag?

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This is an entanglement of my phone charger and headphones. I rarely listen to anything other than speech through my headphones, so I just use the ones that came with my phone. Apologies to any audiophiles who wince when they see people like me. The phone charger is also the one that came with my phone. It’s a handy one to carry as the earth pin slides down to make the plug more compact. A clever bit of design!

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Confounding stereotypes again: Wet Ones. Another thing I don’t use all that often, but feel very glad that I carry whenever I do need to use them.

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This is a collection and a half of writing instruments. I’d love to have a strong rationale for each on of those, but it really is just a jumble. My preferred pen is the black Uniball Gel Impact—there is one of those in there, but there would usually be two or three. The rest are mainly freebies from here and there. You’ll be pleased to hear that I retrieved the lid for the whiteboard marker just after I took this photo.

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This is a free name badge that MPS gave me and all of my fellow medical-school graduates. I’ve never worn it: it’s another thing I carry just in case. As I write this post, I’m wondering what possible situation could arise where I’d need this… but nevertheless, it stays in the bag.

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And finally… a book. I always carry a book to read on the Metro. I’m about two-thirds of the way through Faceless Killers at the moment. No spoilers please.

This 2,296th post was filed under: Reviews.


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