How should autonomous vehicles be programmed?

A massive new survey developed by MIT researchers reveals some distinct global preferences concerning the ethics of autonomous vehicles, as well as some regional variations in those preferences.  The survey has global reach and a unique scale, with over 2 million online participants from over 200 countries weighing in on versions of a classic ethical conundrum, the “Trolley Problem.” The problem involves scenarios in which an accident involving a vehicle is imminent, and the vehicle must opt for one of two potentially fatal options. In the case of driverless cars, that might mean swerving toward a couple of people, rather than a large group of bystanders.

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The most emphatic global preferences in the survey are for sparing the lives of humans over the lives of other animals; sparing the lives of many people rather than a few; and preserving the lives of the young, rather than older people.

“The main preferences were to some degree universally agreed upon,” Awad notes. “But the degree to which they agree with this or not varies among different groups or countries.” For instance, the researchers found a less pronounced tendency to favor younger people, rather than the elderly, in what they defined as an “eastern” cluster of countries, including many in Asia.

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