Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”
  1. A robot may not
    injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to
  2. A robot must obey
    orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict
    with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect
    its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the
    First or Second Law.[1]
Conversations about driverless cars just got a little more
difficult. Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics” cannot help
robotic cars in situations where they must choose between harm to passengers or harm to
pedestrians. A recent article[2]
in Science News includes the
following graphic and explanation to illustrate the point.

J.-F.Bonnefon et al/Science 2016

“Driverless cars will occasionally face emergency situations.
The car may have to determine whether to swerve into one passerby to avoid
several pedestrians (left), swerve away from a pedestrian while harming its own
passenger (middle), or swerve away from several pedestrians while harming its
own passenger (right). Online surveys indicate most people want driverless cars
that save passengers at all costs, even if passenger-sacrificing vehicles save
more lives.”
Of course one might argue that, on average, humans are no
better at such moral dilemmas. Perhaps the issue is that with a robotic car we
know exactly what we will get. Programming will determine the choices a
driverless car will make in any given situation, whereas humans are much less
predictable and the choices they make are dependent upon the degree of altruism resident in the individual
driver. Many times, in a moral dilemma, we do not know how an individual human
will respond. Will they choose to sacrifice themselves for the sake of
strangers? Will they sacrifice themselves and their child for the strangers?
What about the scenario in which their pet would be sacrificed for the sake of
unknown pedestrians? We may do surveys and get a statistically accurate average
on the answers to these questions but we know that there would be outliers and
unique decisions made at the spur of the moment. With robotic programming, the
driverless car does not make a choice, it simply follows the program with which
it was built. This puts the onus on the manufacturer rather than a driver or a
car or a robotic brain. In a litigious society, this may be the problem that
slows the progress of driverless cars.

[1] In 1942, the science fiction author Isaac Asimov published a short
story called “Runaround” in which he introduced three laws that governed
the behaviour of robots.
[2] “Moral Dilemma Could Put Brakes on Driverless Cars,” Bruce Bower,
June 23, 2016, Science News,

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