In the wake of digitisation, man is delegating responsibility to technical devices. But what decisions should machines be allowed to make and how should we deal with the consequences? In Germany an ethics committee is working on this question.
What should we do, when machines make the decisions – for example, when driving a car? | Photo (detail): © RioPatuca Images – Fotolia.com
A motorist is driving fast along a country road, when he suddenly sees an overtaking vehicle coming at him from the opposite direction. He has only two ways of saving himself – either he jerks the steering wheel round and hurtles off the road into a field – right into a group of children playing. Or he decides to take his chances and stay on track. Will the other driver swerve to the side? Whatever action he takes, due to the brevity of time it will not be a conscious decision, but an instinctive one. No court in the world would hit upon the idea of convicting him for his actions.
It would be different, however, if the driver were a robot. If, for example, it were one of those autonomous vehicles that have been undergoing tests on the road for Google and Audi over the past few years. Its cyberspeed processors would give the computer enough time to make a decision. However, it would already have to have been programmed for this situation, in its algorithm. But what should the verdict be in such a situation? And who should bear the responsibility for it?
GUIDELINES FOR ALGORITHMS
In order to clarify such issues, in autumn 2016 the German Federal Government set up the so-called Ethik-Kommission für das autonome Fahren (Ethics Commission for Autonomous Driving). Under the direction of the former Federal Constitutional Judge, Udo di Fabio, a dozen scientists, computer scientists, engineers and philosophers have been discussing questions of decision-making responsibility for autonomous vehicles and have devised standards that up to now have not existed. “As long as there is no legal security in this area, there will be no investment in this technology,” says Armin Grunwald. The physicist and philosopher is a member of the Ethics Committee and also heads the Büro für Technikfolgen-Abschätzung (Office for Technology Assessment) in the German Parliament.
Autonomous driving is taking society into new territory. People are handing over responsibility to the computer that controls the vehicle. “We can only do justice to the mobility revolution by developing clear guidelines for algorithms,” said the German Federal Minister of Transport, Alexander Dobrindt, at the Ethics Committee’s opening session in October 2016. On the basis of its recommendations, a law is to be passed which will allow autonomous vehicles to operate on public roads. The law is to clarify which responsibilities are to be born by both man and computer and provide legal security for customers, drivers, road users and automobile manufacturers. Armin Grunwald is convinced that this is just the first step towards equality between man and machine, others will follow. “It is time to develop a form of ethics for artificial intelligence.”
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