The Trolley Problem Part I

The Trolley Problem

I have two arms, but fingers none.

I have two feet, but cannot run.

I carry well, but carry best with my feet off the ground.

What am I? *

The ethical dilemma called the Trolley Problem is intellectually dishonest because it is posed as a riddle to which there is a clever solution that’ll make you kick yourself when it’s revealed to you.

The essence of a dilemma is that there is no solution. Whatever you do, there are going to be losers and the biggest loser will be you, because you are forced by the rules of the game to do something wrong.

And if you are faced by a Trolley Problem in real life, you will almost certainly not act rationally. You will act on instinct, emotion or other psychological factors. Reasoning cannot help you at all.

The Trolley Problem goes like this: a runaway trolley car (train carriage in Real English™) is barrelling down a railroad track towards a switch point (points), where the track splits into two. There are people on the tracks who will not be able to escape. Depending on which way the switch is set, the trolley will kill five people or one person. The switchgear is presently set to the track with the five people. You control the switchgear. It is your decision whether five people die or one.

Further twists to the plot have been added by various people, whether out of a sadistic wish to twist the knife or in an attempt to gain clarity it’s hard to say. They are all spurious.

trolley problem

But now the situation has arisen where it is necessary to find a solution to the conundrum. In the last few years, Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems have achieved autonomy. They can operate without human guidance and make decisions that will lead to the saving or loss of human lives.

We have to find a way to restore intellectual honesty to the Trolley Problem.

The developers of AI will be forced to throw out the philosophical agonisings and create a solid set of rules, a decision-making structure, an algorithm, to help AI make the best decision when it is faced with a Trolley Problem.

Because this is the way that AI works, the algorithm will almost certainly be based on numbers. The various elements in each situation will be assigned values. When these values are added up, the course of action with the best numerical score will be the winner.

Philosophers who consider the Trolley Problem wail about the immeasurability of human life. That’s irrelevant. To make AI ethical, we have to use measurements. There’s no other way I can think of.

AI already has a very successful algorithm for deciding between options. It’s called game theory. It is used extensively in computer games and regularly beats human opponents.

Based on this, I’m going to coin a word for all the elements in a decision-making situation that stand to win or lose. These are Players. Players can be humans, animals, the environment, or even things like cars, trees and buildings. The situation itself will be called the Game and the various courses of action are Plays, a word borrowed from gridiron football. Factors like weather that affect the Game without being affected themselves are Scenery. Players, the Game, Plays and Scenery make up the Playing Field.

*  Answer to the riddle: a wheelbarrow

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About oldfossil

Just because I'm old doesn't mean I'm decrepit.
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