Public reaction to the Google Car as kick-off for machine ethics conversation

“If self-driving cars cut the roughly 40,000 annual US traffic fatalities in half, the car makers might get not 20,000 thank-you notes, but 20,000 lawsuits.” –A survey of research questions for robust and beneficial AI, Future of Life Institute (But at what point is the algorithm subject to double jeopardy and no longer subject to new lawsuits?)

After the equivalent of 75 human years of practice, in which it no doubt paid better attention to learning than a 16 year old human would, Google’s self-driving cars will now officially and openly hit public roads in California, the company announced today.

The key words in the announcement: “We’re looking forward to learning how the community perceives and interacts with the vehicles…” That reads to me like “we really hope people don’t react to these the way they did to Google Glass.”

I hope that the backlash against robots isn’t too severe. I don’t want to treat them like a technological inevitability which humans have no ability to resist, but…

The public’s reaction to the Google Car will likely act as a general referendum on the future of artificial intelligence and robotics. So far, looking around at Twitter replies posted to major media outlets covering today’s news, sentiment seems very mixed.


In a big-picture sense, I think of my company Little Bird as an autonomous learning machine. Today it’s for enterprise marketers doing research about market influencers, trends and intent. Long term I hope to work on self-improving systems for augmenting human learning in general, through discovery and filtering.

Thus I have an interest in how the public reacts to self-driving cars as a human myself, and as a person who wants to continue to build good machines. Maybe I shouldn’t associate what we’re doing with all of that, though.

Here’s an interesting one. “Machine ethics: How should an autonomous vehicle trade off, say, a small probability of injury to a human against the near-certainty of a large material cost? How should lawyers, ethicists, and policymakers engage the public on these issues? Should such trade-offs be the subject of national standards?”

It was convenient when we couldn’t blame an overwhelmed human for which choice they made under duress, but it’s all going to be rationalized by machines that aren’t overwhelmed.

That’s from the Future of Life organization linked-to above, which is full of technologists building artificial intelligence but also working to make sure it doesn’t result in substantially adverse consequences for humanity. It’s a pretty awesome organization; it’s the one Elon Musk made a big donation to earlier this year.

I don’t know how to wrap this all up thematically, these are just some thoughts thrown together. I think we need to think about autonomous vehicles from an ethical perspective, from a human evolution perspective, regarding city planning and ecology, regarding class, race and privilege. (Has anyone written about that yet? In science fiction, at length I’m sure.) This is an entire field of study that’s coming on really fast. I just thought I’d wade into the conversation.

How Some People Blog Every Day

I used to write, no joke, 12 to 15 blog posts every day. For a few years, when I was just getting started, I was prolific. Blogging has led to millions of dollars for me to get my business started.

But now I’m a founder of a company with 15 people on the team – and it’s hard for me to write a blog post even once a week.

Seth Godin blogs every day and has for years. He’s a very busy guy. The incredible Hubspot blog this week ran a post titled How Seth Godin Finds Time to Write Blog Posts Every Day, based on an audio interview with him on their Growth Show podcast. (Way to show how content repurposing helps increase the quantity of high quality stuff, Dave Gerhardt!)

How Jay Baer puts it:

Godin’s two bits of advice that Gerherdt writes up are: 1. Write casually like you talk. (Personally, this was huge advice for me in high school when my debate coach said “you’re a terrible writer!” and I used similar thinking to turn that around.) And 2. Make the decision once and commit.

“Everybody has time to talk about how their day went — so if you write like you talk, all you have to do is write down that thing you said,” Godin says. “It literally can take 90 seconds if you want it to.” I’m not sure that’s literally true but sure, ok. I added a couple of links and an image to this post, I haven’t yet Tweeted it, I’m typing fast and it’s still taking me 20 minutes. Maybe I just need to get back into the groove.

One thing I’d add: it’s easier to write when you spend a little time reading. There’s an incredible quantity of opportunities to engage with conversations of general interest out there on the web. Like never before. There are plenty of things you probably have something to say about. And if you can add genuine value based on your company’s value proposition, in a way that’s valuable to people even if they don’t care about your product, then there’s a business case for all this discourse. I’ll tell you what our product has to add to this: we surface great opportunities to engage in conversation about hot content by delivering a filtered feed of the hottest conversations among leading experts in your field. That’s how I found this Godin article, for example: because Matt Heinz shared it, it got hotter than most of his links he shares and it showed up in my Little Bird highlight reel (called Share and Engage) that I have bookmarked on my phone.

Now I’ve hustled to write this post quickly but well and it’s taken me a little under 10 minutes to do so. It was hard to do, but most good things are. (After I wrote 10 minutes, I spent 10 more revising.) Tweeting is easy, I do that all day every day – but blogging is a lot harder. Could I do it again tomorrow? Could you? We’ll see. Godin says we should decide and do it. My blood’s pumping, I’ve got to get this wrapped up and get out the door to get to work!

I’d love to know your thoughts about regular content production on the social web. Hit me up with a comment if you’ve got something to share.

I’ll see you tomorrow!