Dilemmas for drones.

As technological developments leave machines increasingly autonomous – from drones to driverless cars – The Economist argues for the need for them to be programmed with the capacity for moral decision-making in their quasi-minds:

[W]here ethical systems are embedded into robots, the judgments they make need to be ones that seem right to most people. The techniques of experimental philosophy, which studies how people respond to ethical dilemmas, should be able to help. Last, and most important, more collaboration is required between engineers, ethicists, lawyers and policymakers, all of whom would draw up very different types of rules if they were left to their own devices.

There’s a few things to say about this. First, the attribution of moral agency to robots seems premature, and perhaps necessarily nonsensical. These machines may be able to make ‘choices’ in the sense of ‘acting on the basis of general principles programmed into them’, but where are those initial principles coming from? Us, the programmers. So even in the autonomous cars, in a sense it remains people doing the steering. And we, of course, remain the ones with the real minds capable of truly deciding on such things. Robots will be able to do right and wrong things, but they still can’t, and perhaps never can, do things rightly and wrongly. They can kill, but they can’t be vicious. And that’s because they lack intent on a foundational level.

Secondly, I fear that the suggestions in the passage I quoted could easily turn out inconsistent. What seems right to most people based on primitive hunches will often diverge from the conclusions reached by some moral philosophers after years of reflection. I, for instance, would probably think it wrong to torture an innocent man even if it led to the leaking of information that prevented a terrorist attack (I kind of explained this last week). Most people would dissent, and no doubt recommend the programming of machines in such a way that they work to maximise lives saved.

Still, the offer of a rare employment opportunity is naturally much appreciated.

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