Artificial Intelligence

Rightful Machines: Solving the Trolley Problem for Autonomous Machine Agents

Friday, December 18, 2020, 11:00am - 12:00pm PSTiCal
Virtually via Zoom
This event is open to the public.
AI Seminar
Ava Wright, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Abstract: In a recent experiment conducted online, millions of subjects were asked what a self-driving car whose brakes have failed should do when its only choices are to turn or stay on course under various accident conditions (see ""). Should the car turn and kill one person in order to avoid killing five on the road ahead? Most subjects agreed that it should. Most also agreed, however, that the car generally should spare younger over older people, females over males, the fit over the overweight, and those of higher status over those of lower status, with some variations in preferences correlated with subjects' cultural backgrounds.

In this talk, I argue that "moral" machine agents must first be rightful machines, machines that respect principles of justice and the public law of a legitimate state. In a civil society where everyone is morally equal, only public institutions to which everyone can consent have the moral authority to resolve good-faith conflicts between our respective rights and obligations. The judgments of such institutions therefore take moral priority over private ethical preferences in cases of conflict. I then show how this insight into the rationale for the priority of right solves the "trolley problem" as well as illuminates how and why moral dilemmas should be resolved in public law. Since no one can consent to be subject to the enforcement of contradictory obligations, justice requires a rational resolution of conflicts in the prescriptive system of public laws, whether tragic moral dilemmas are possible or not.

Biography: Ava Thomas Wright is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, with a specialization in the applied ethics of artificial intelligence.  Wright's formal education includes a M.S. in artificial intelligence (2018) and a J.D. (2000) as well as a Ph.D. in philosophy (2019).  Wright is also a former software developer and technology company founder/executive.  Wright has presented at conferences such as the AAAI/ACM Conference on AI, Ethics and Society (AIES19, AIES20), the 12th and 13th International Kant Congresses (2015, 2019), the Computer Ethics and Philosophical Enquiry Biennial Conference (CEPE19), and American Philosophical Association annual meetings (all divisions, various years), with new publications forthcoming in journals such as Philosopher's Imprint, Southwest Philosophy Review, and Kant-Studien.  With expertise that is both broad and deep in ethics, political philosophy, law, business, and AI, Wright is in an ideal position to make progress answering the difficult ethical questions that new and emerging AI technologies present.


The recording for this AI Seminar talk will be posted on our USC/ISI YouTube page within 1-2 business days:

« Return to Events