From self-driving cars on public roads to self-piloting reusable rockets landing on self-sailing ships, machine intelligence is supporting or entirely taking over ever more complex human activities at an ever-increasing pace.

This new technology raises a myriad of questions about how the design of our cities will change to accommodate these new technologies. But what is of increasing interest is how machines will be programmed to make difficult, even moral, decisions.

We all know the human brain is the most incredible machine – a super processor, constantly scrutinising information. Machines will never have the same cognitive capability, so how can they make complex decisions?

A self-driving car carrying a family of four on a rural two-lane highway spots a bouncing ball ahead. As the vehicle approaches a child runs out to retrieve the ball. Should the car risk its passengers’ lives by swerving to the side – where the edge of the road meets a steep cliff? Or should the car continue on its path, ensuring its passengers’ safety at the child’s expense?

This scenario and many others pose moral and ethical dilemmas that carmakers, car buyers and regulators must address before vehicles should be given full autonomy, according to a study published in Science.

The study highlights paradoxes facing carmakers, car buyers and regulators as driverless technology accelerates. Most of the 1,928 research participants in the Science report indicated that they believed vehicles should be programmed to crash into something rather than run over pedestrians, even if that meant killing the vehicle’s passengers. But at the same time, many of the participants indicated an unwillingness to buy a car programmed in a way which could compromise their own safety.

Since conducting the research, the team from The University of Massachusetts, MIT Media Lab and Scalable Cooperation, have extended their research through an online website called Moral Machine to help gather more information about how people would prefer autonomous cars to react in different scenarios where passenger and pedestrian safety are at odds.

The site lets participants compare their responses and even offers the ability to construct new scenarios by tinkering with the number and type of people involved and whether they are obeying traffic laws at the time of the accident.

To take part in the study click here.

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