The University of Liverpool Podcast Dr Louise Dennis is a Post-Doctoral Researcher in the University of Liverpool’s Autonomy and Verification Laboratory. Her background is in artificial intelligence and automated reasoning, having worked on the development of several automated reasoning and theorem proving tools.

In this second episode of a two-part series looking at big data and the ethics of autonomous machines, Louise appeared on the University of Liverpool Podcast and discussed the challenge – and importance – of autonomous machines being able to make ethical judgements.


5 ethical hurdles autonomous machines must overcome

  1. Hypothetical questions demand real-world answers
    How do we assess the value of human life? Is the life of an older person somehow worth ‘less’ than the life of a child? If a person has a criminal record, does that impact on the perceived ‘value’ of their life?

    To bring these questions into the real world, should driverless cars faced with an unexpected situation be programmed to collide with two pedestrian adults or one pedestrian child? One choice causes potential harm to double the number of people, but they are people with an expected shorter time still to live.

    “If you present people with a problem in the abstract,” says Louise, “then they say yes, in general, they think cars should always choose to preserve the maximum number of lives possible. But then if you ask them if they would buy a car that might deliberately put their life in danger (in order to save other lives) than they’re a lot less keen on the idea.”
  2. The hidden conflict in driverless cars
    To make things even more complicated, imagine, five years from now, you’re travelling to work in your driverless car. A situation unfolds extremely quickly that requires the car to take action. Swerving off the road might mean a 50% chance of a pedestrian being hurt. Staying on the road means a 30% chance of you, the driver, being hurt. What does the car do? “Suddenly, you’re not dealing with stark ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions,” says Louise. “You’re talking about how much risk are you prepared to put the driver in, compared to how much risk are you prepared to put someone outside the car in.”
  3. Can some events can be avoided?
    While the correct choice in the situation above is difficult to assess, engineers believe autonomous cars can avoid the situation ever arising. Louise says: “Their view on it is that… if you’re paying enough attention to the road and to the car in advance, you always know there is a risk… and can take action to avoid having to actually solve the problem.

    “So, you can see that there is crowded pavement and there’s lots of people on the road, and maybe you should start slowing down now just in case they don’t get out of the way or something goes wrong.”
  4. Privacy, dignity, autonomy: which is most important?
    Transport is not the only area affected by autonomous machines. As robots begin to help the elderly in later-life care, a new raft of ethical issues will surface. “There are questions about the elderly person’s privacy,” says Louise. “Should the robot report anything of concern to a relative or a healthcare professional? There are also questions about the elderly person’s autonomy… if they are trying to lift things and maybe they’re not up to it… should the robot attempt to stop them?” Dignity, too, could also come into consideration.

    Louise believes it is “very hard to imagine” any sensible way to legislate which of those considerations is more important. So, autonomous machines face huge real-world difficulties before they can work effectively in advanced healthcare.
  5. There is a growing realisation of the scale of the problem
    Since the start of 2016, the International Organisation for Electrical Engineering (IEEE) has developed a global initiative on ethical issues and artificial intelligence. “They’re taking a very, very broad view of what are the ethics that are going to be involved in this technological revolution,” says Louise. “An awful lot of people have suddenly woken up and realised this is a pressing, important issue.”

About this podcast

The University of Liverpool Podcast aims to bring listeners closer to some of the academic experts, authors and innovative thinkers from the University who, through their in-depth analyses, research and discoveries, are affecting positive change in the world today. Each episode features one or more of our academic experts discussing research in their specialist field. Subscribe to the University of Liverpool Podcast via iTunes, Tunein and Google Play Music (US and Canada only).


Interested in learning more about the University of Liverpool’s online IT programmes? Find out more about the MSc in Big Data Analytics and our other IT programmes.

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