A study on driverless car ethics offers a troubling look into our values


To figure out how autonomous vehicles should respond during potentially fatal collisions, a group of scientists set out to learn what decisions human drivers would make.

The first time Azim Shariff met Iyad Rahwan—the first real time, after communicating with him by phone and e-mail—was in a driverless car. It was November, 2012, and Rahwan, a thirty-four-year-old professor of computing and information science, was researching artificial intelligence at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, a university in Abu Dhabi. He was eager to explore how concepts within psychology—including social networks and collective reasoning—might inform machine learning, but there were few psychologists working in the U.A.E. Shariff, a thirty-one-year-old with wild hair and expressive eyebrows, was teaching psychology at New York University’s campus in Abu Dhabi; he guesses that he was one of four research psychologists in the region at the time, an estimate that Rahwan told me “doesn’t sound like an exaggeration.” Rahwan cold-e-mailed Shariff and invited him to visit his research group.

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