Germany publishes ethical guidelines for self-driving cars

Some light weekend reading: ethical guidelines for self-driving cars, as proposed by an ethics commission of the German government.

The technological developments are forcing government and society to reflect on the emerging changes. The decision that has to be taken is whether the licensing of automated driving systems is ethically justifiable or possibly even imperative. If these systems are licensed – and it is already apparent that this is happening at international level – everything hinges on the conditions in which they are used and the way in which they are designed. At the fundamental level, it all comes down to the following question. How much dependence on technologically complex systems – which in the future will be based on artificial intelligence, possibly with machine learning capabilities – are we willing to accept in order to achieve, in return, more safety, mobility and convenience? What precautions need to be taken to ensure controllability, transparency and data autonomy? What technological development guidelines are required to ensure that we do not blur the contours of a human society that places individuals, their freedom of development, their physical and intellectual integrity and their entitlement to social respect at the heart of its legal regime?

Cars are legalised murder weapons, and the car is probably one of the deadliest inventions of mankind. Self-driving cars, therefore, open up a whole Pandora’s box oef ethical dilemmas, and it only makes sense for governments and lawmakers to start addressing these.

Beyond the ethics related to life and death, though, there are also simpler, more banal ethical considerations. What if, in the hunger for more profits, a car maker makes a deal with McDonalds, and tweaks its self-driving car software just a tad bit so that it drives customers past McDonalds more often, even if it increases total travel time? What if a car maker makes similar deals with major chains like Target, Walmart, and Whole Foods, so that smaller chains or independent stores don’t even show up when you say “take me to the nearest place that sells X”? Is that something we should allow?

Should we even allow self-driving car software to be closed-source to begin with? Again – cars are legal murder weapons, and do we really trust car manufacturers enough not to cut corners when developing self-driving car software to meet deadlines or due to bad management or underpaid developers? Shouldn’t all this development and all this code be out there for the world to see?

Interesting times ahead.


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