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Smart Devices Take on Moral Dilemmas for You

Smart Devices Take on Moral Dilemmas for You
Arts & Culture

Ethical Things project examines one facet of artificial intelligence

Jason Brick
  • 11 march 2015

We already know that people use smart devices to do dumb things, but how do they fare with moral quandaries? The Ethical Things project doesn’t leave the answer in the hands of the device, but does explore how we might build smart machines—especially autonomous military and rescue vehicles—to make the right moral decisions in a crisis.

Ethical Things’ flagship device is the Ethical Fan, which must choose which of two subjects to blow air on based on data it observes about their size, clothing and signs of relative health. Before the experiment begins, the user can set its moral compass along four variables:

  • Religion (choosing from Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist or all)
  • Education (from none, basic, university, PhD or all)
  • Age (0-20, 20-40, 40+ or all)
  • Gender (male, female or both)

The fan will then “decide” which subject receives the blown air based on matrices drawn from studies on behavior from each of those demographics.

Ethical Things.jpg
If the fan cannot reach a decision, it crowdsources the answer by reaching out to Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” service, a site where live humans complete small tasks in real time for a nominal fee. It will find somebody whose demographics match the settings and ask for instructions.

Although this clearly isn’t artificial intelligence, it’s a step toward the decision making that might eventually create the AI Singularity. Under the right circumstances, it could be said to pass the Turing Test, which in this case would call the fan artificially intelligent if it were impossible for the subjects to tell the difference between the fan acting on its own and the fan acting under a human’s instructions.

If the fan doesn’t fare so well, they shouldn’t feel bad. After all, computers are still less than 100 years old. We humans have been working on the problem for millennia, and we still haven’t figured it out.

Ethical Things

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