Our moral, digital future

Published in Insights, The New Zealand Initiative’s newsletter, 14 October 2016

The future is uncertain but that technology’s role will become more important is as safe a prediction as any. This was the key message in a talk by renowned futurologist Peter Cochrane to the Initiative this week.

In his engaging and entertaining talk, Cochrane presented a wide range of technologies that already exist in prototypes and will change our lives in the future. Think of materials that self-repair, gadgets that continuously track your bodily functions, or a spray of stem cells that can grow back burnt skin.

Cochrane also showed us what his dream car of the future looks like. It would still be a vehicle on four wheels, albeit with tyres that bend if necessary. It would change its colour at the touch of a button. It would be specially coated so that it would never need to be cleaned. And of course it would drive itself.

Although all of this sounds good, or even too good to be true, there are also ethical and legal issues regarding most future innovations. Some may be resolved by applying existing legal principles. Some will require us to rethink what civil and criminal liability means in a world in which machines make decisions on our behalf.

To get a taste for the ethical dilemmas we will need to resolve, you only have to visit the Moral Machine website at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Moral Machine asks the audience to put themselves into the position of a driverless car in situations where the car will unavoidably kill some people or animals. It is the player’s role to determine who gets killed: Younger or older people, men or women, fit people or large people, doctors or gangsters.

I have played the Moral Machine game. My clearest preference was for saving people who obeyed traffic signs, followed by a preference for killing animals rather than human beings. Which probably means that I must be a rule-obsessed German with a law degree.

Now think of the implications for actual driverless cars. It would make a massive difference to have them programmed by an animal rights activist compared to someone like me. Yet we will need to have some rules and guidelines for these cars, and ideally before the first accident occurs.

As for myself, my dream car would be very different from Peter Cochrane’s. I just enjoy driving too much.

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