Man sitting in a drawn car

Self-driving cars to make moral and ethical decisions like humans

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A new study has demonstrated that human ethical decisions can be implemented into machines using morality modelling. This has strong implications for how autonomous vehicles could effectively manage the moral dilemmas they will face on the road.

The Institute of Cognitive Science at the University of Osnabrück conducted the research project, titled ‘Virtual reality experiments investigating human behavior and moral assessments’, using immersive virtual reality to allow the authors to study human behavior in simulated road traffic scenarios.

The participants were asked to drive a car in a typical suburban neighborhood on a foggy day when they experienced unexpected unavoidable dilemma situations with inanimate objects, animals, and humans and had to decide which was to be spared.

The results were conceptualised by statistical models leading to rules, with an associated degree of explanatory power to explain the observed behavior. The research showed that moral decisions in the scope of unavoidable traffic collisions can be explained well, and modelled, by a single value-of-life for every human, animal or inanimate object.

Leon Sütfeld, the first author of the study, says that until now it has been assumed that moral decisions are strongly context dependent and therefore cannot be modelled or described algorithmically.

“We found quite the opposite”, he said. “Human behavior in dilemma situations can be modelled by a rather simple value-of-life-based model that is attributed by the participant to every human, animal, or inanimate object.”

This implies that human moral behavior can be well described by algorithms that could be used by machines as well.

The study’s findings have major implications in the debate around the behavior of self-driving cars and other machines, especially in unavoidable situations. A recent initiative from the German Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure (BMVI) has defined 20 ethical principles related to self-driving vehicles, such as in relation to behavior in the case of unavoidable accidents, making the critical assumption that human moral behavior could not be modeled.

Prof. Gordon Pipa, a senior author of the study, says that since it now seems to be possible that machines can be programmed to make human-like moral decisions, it is crucial that society engages in an urgent and serious debate.

“We need to ask whether autonomous systems should adopt moral judgements,” he said. “If yes, should they imitate moral behavior by imitating human decisions, should they behave along ethical theories and if so, which ones and critically, if things go wrong who or what is at fault?”

As an example, within the new German ethical principles, a child running onto the road would be classified as significantly involved in creating the risk, thus less qualified to be saved in comparison to an adult standing on the footpath as a non-involved party. Is this a moral value held by most people and how large is the scope for interpretation?

“Now that we know how to implement human ethical decisions into machines we, as a society, are still left with a double dilemma,” explains Prof. Peter König, a senior author of the paper. “Firstly, we have to decide whether moral values should be included in guidelines for machine behavior and secondly, if they are, should machines act just like humans.”

The study’s authors say that autonomous cars are just the beginning, as robots in hospitals and other artificial intelligence systems will also become more commonplace. They warn that we are now at the beginning of a new epoch with the need for clear rules established, before the machines start marking decisions without us.

The research findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience.

E&T is continually following the evolution of autonomous vehicles and the technology trends in automotive engineering as the world is steered towards this new phase of motoring.

E&T also regularly reports on new developments and research involving robots.

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