A Philosopher's Blog

Robo Responsibility

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Science, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on March 2, 2015

It is just a matter of time before the first serious accident involving a driverless car or an autonomous commercial drone. As such, it is well worth considering the legal and moral aspects of responsibility. If companies that are likely to be major players in the autonomous future, such as Google and Amazon, have the wisdom of foresight, they are already dropping stacks of cash on lawyers who are busily creating the laws-to-be regarding legal responsibility for accidents and issues involving such machines. The lobbyists employed by these companies will presumably drop fat stacks of cash on the politicians they own and these fine lawmakers will make them into laws.

If these companies lack foresight or have adopted a wait and see attitude, things will play out a bit differently: there will be a serious incident involving an autonomous machine, a lawsuit will take place, fat stacks of cash will be dropped, and a jury or judge will reach a decision that will set a precedent. There is, of course, a rather large body of law dealing with responsibility in regards to property, products and accidents and these will, no doubt, serve as foundations for the legal wrangling.

While the legal aspects will no doubt be fascinating (and expensive) my main concern is with the ethics of the matter. That is, who is morally responsible when something goes wrong with an autonomous machine like a driverless car or an autonomous delivery drone.

While the matter of legal responsibility is distinct from that of ethical responsibility, the legal theory of causation does have some use here. I am, obviously enough, availing myself of the notion of conditio sine qua non (“a condition without which nothing”) as developed by H.L.A. Hart and A.M. Honore.

Roughly put, this is the “but for” view of causation. X can be seen as the cause of Y if Y would not have happened but for X. This seems like a reasonable place to begin for moral responsibility. After all, if someone would not have died but for my actions (that is, if I had not done X, then the person would still be alive) then there seems to be good reason to believe that I have some moral responsibility for the person’s death. It also seems reasonable to assign a degree of responsibility that is proportional to the casual involvement of the agent or factor in question. So, for example, if my action only played a small role in someone’s death, then my moral accountability would be proportional to that role. This allows, obviously enough, for shared responsibility.

While cases involving non-autonomous machines can be rather complicated, they can usually be addressed in a fairly straightforward manner in terms of assigning responsibility. Consider, for example, an incident involving a person losing a foot to a lawnmower. If the person pushing the lawnmower intentionally attacked someone with her mower, the responsibility rests on her. If the person who lost the foot went and stupidly kicked at the mower, then the responsibility rests on her. If the lawnmower blade detached because of defects in the design, material or manufacturing, then the responsibility lies with the specific people involved in whatever defect caused the problem. If the blade detached because the owner neglected to properly maintain her machine, then the responsibility is on her. Naturally, the responsibility can also be shared (although we might not know the relevant facts). For example, imagine that the mower had a defect such that if it were not well maintained it would easily shed its blade when kicked. In this case, the foot would not have been lost but for the defect, the lack of maintenance and the kick. If we did not know all the facts, we would probably blame the kick—but the concern here is not what we would know in specific cases, but what the ethics would be in such cases if we did, in fact, know the facts.

The novel aspect of cases involving autonomous machines is the fact that they are autonomous. This might be relevant to the ethics of responsibility because the machine might qualify as a responsible agent. Or it might not.

It is rather tempting to treat an autonomous machine like a non-autonomous machine in terms of moral accountability. The main reason for this is that the sort of autonomous machines being considered here (driverless cars and autonomous drones) would certainly seem to lack moral autonomy. That is to say that while a human does not directly control them in their operations, they are operating in accord with programs written by humans (or written by programs written by humans) and lack the freedom that is necessary for moral accountability.

To illustrate this, consider an incident with an autonomous lawnmower and the loss of a foot. If the owner caused it to attack the person, she is just as responsible as if she had pushed a conventional lawnmower over the victim’s foot. If the person who lost the foot stupidly kicked the lawnmower and lost a foot, then it is his fault. If the incident arose from defects in the machinery, materials, design or programming, then responsibility would be applied to the relevant people to the degree they were involved in the defects. If, for example, the lawnmower ran over the person because the person assembling it did not attach the sensors correctly, then the moral blame lies with that person (and perhaps an inspector). The company that made it would also be accountable, in the collective and abstract sense of corporate accountability. If, for example, the programming was defective, then the programmer(s) would be accountable: but for his bad code, the person would still have his foot.

As with issues involving non-autonomous machines there is also the practical matter of what people would actually believe about the incident. For example, it might not be known that the incident was caused by bad code—it might be attributed entirely to chance. What people would know in specific cases is important in the practical sense, but does not impact the general moral principles in terms of responsibility.

Some might also find the autonomous nature of the machines to be seductive in regards to accountability. That is, it might be tempting to consider the machine itself as potentially accountable in a way analogous to holding a person accountable.

Holding the machine accountable would, obviously enough, require eliminating other factors as causes. To be specific, to justly blame the machine would require that the machine’s actions were not the result of defects in manufacturing, materials, programing, maintenance, and so on. Instead, the machine would have had to act on its own, in a way analogous to person acting. Using the lawnmower example, the autonomous lawnmower would need to decide to go after the person from it own volition. That is, the lawnmower would need to possess a degree of free will.

Obviously enough, if a machine did possess a degree of free will, then it would be morally accountable within its freedom. As such, a rather important question would be whether or not an autonomous machine can have free will. If a machine can, then it would make moral sense to try machines for crimes and punish them. If they cannot, then the trials would be reserved, as they are now, for people. Machines would, as they are now, be repaired or destroyed. There would also be the epistemic question of how to tell whether the machine had this capacity. Since we do not even know if we have this capacity, this is a rather problematic matter.

Given the state of technology, it seems unlikely that the autonomous machines of the near future will be morally autonomous. But as the technology improves, it seems likely that there will come a day when it will be reasonable to consider whether an autonomous machine can be justly held accountable for its actions. This has, of course, been addressed in science fiction—such as the ‘I, Robot” episodes (the 1964 original and the 1995 remake) of the Outer Limits which were based on Eando Binder’s short story of the same name.


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Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 24, 2010
North Korea and weapons of mass destruction
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While the TSA continues to scan and pat looking for underwear bombs, trouble is brewing between North and South Korea. While there have been various incidents in the past, the most recent events are matters of grave concern. After all, North Korea is not just a few terrorists dreaming about getting an underwear bomb past the TSA. South Korea has a real military and even nuclear weapons. Plus a leadership that often seems to somewhat north of sanity.

Of course, shooting incidents along such borders do occur without escalating to actual war. Given that there will be a change of leadership soon, North Korea might be playing a violent form of political maneuvering to make some sort of point. Or perhaps this is yet another attempt to gain some leverage in negotiations (“do what we want or we will do crazy things”).

While North Korea is a smaller player than China (or Japan) it has the potential to create a great deal of chaos. While China and North Korea are not the best of friends, China has an established history of sending troops to aid North Korea (we killed a lot of Chinese in the Korean War). Also, China has a clear interest in keeping Korea divided and the United States as far away as possible. Of course, China also has an interest in not having a war break out nearby. China almost certainly does not want to be engaged in a shooting war with the United States. While this is a remote possibility at this time, the United States will fight to defend South Korea and these operations could result in incidents with China.

From a rational standpoint, it makes sense for America and China to cooperate to prevent a war from starting. While China does benefit from North Korea being an enemy of the United States, China benefits far more from being on decent terms with the United States and there not being a shooting war in the region.

It makes good sense to work at getting China to see that having a stable and less crazy North Korea is in its best interest. But, as noted above, a divided Korea is in the interest of China (at least relative to a unified Korea that is allied with America). As such, China will probably be willing to tolerate North Korea’s actions. Hopefully, this will not encourage North Korea to start up the shooting war in earnest.

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Another Korean War?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 28, 2010
Flag of South Korea
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While the news folks are focusing mainly on the oil spill, the situation between North Korea and South Korea has been heating up. The most recent catalyst is the discovery that the South Korean warship that sank was apparently torpedoed by the North Koreans. In response, the United States has been attempting to put pressure on North Korea. The United States is also flexing its muscles by planning joint exercises with the South Korean military. This will include anti-submarine operations.

North Korea is, as usual, not taking things very well and has been making various threats. Meanwhile, the Chinese seem to be considering what to do. On one hand, a war in the region would probably not be advantageous to China. On the other hand, the Chinese certainly do not want American influence in the region to grow. After all, the Chinese have created a few incidents with the United States military in the region.

This is, obviously enough, a rather serious situation. Perhaps the most reasonable approach is to work with China to defuse the situation and work towards a peaceful resolution. Of course, North Korea’s rogue behavior cannot be allowed to go unchecked.  After all, a lack of response will merely encourage more rogue behavior which could escalate into war.

If China can be convinced that such behavior is not in its best interest, then China’s influence could be rather useful in this matter. However, if the Chinese would prefer to escalate matters to push against the United States, then things could get much worse. As such, China is a key player in this situation. Given that we have been such a good customer, perhaps they will be willing to work with us.

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Iraq: Celebrations & Explosions

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 30, 2009
A smiling Saddam Hussein sitting easily on a g...
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As American troops have officially left Iraqi cities (aside from advisers, trainers, and others) the Iraqi people are celebrating a landmark  as a (mostly) sovereign nation. However, the celebrations have been marred by bomb attacks and these show that things are far from normal in the country.

Of course, the United States has not left the country. While the cities are (mostly) devoid of US forces, we still operate numerous bases in the country. As such, Iraq still has a ways to go before it can be considered a truly independent nation. Of course, the US does maintain forces in other sovereign countries (Japan, Germany, and South Korea being a few examples), so perhaps the US will be there to stay for quite some time. This can be a very good thing for the host country: the US picks up a part of their defense costs and dumps money into their economies.

While there is a long way to go in Iraq, it is important to acknowledge the progress that has been made. The country is far more stable than it was after the invasion and there are some vaguely democratic institutions now in place. While the American forces deserve an incredible amount of praise, there is still the obvious question of whether the invasion was worth it. After all, we found no WMDs, Saddam was a minor threat, and Iraq had no real ties to terrorists groups (ironically, the invasion gave terrorists the chance to get into Iraq). So, after destroying a despotic but functioning government, losing thousands of Americans, losing untold thousands of Iraqis, and pouring in billions of dollars we now see a somewhat despotic and somewhat functioning government. Hardly the shinning democracy that was promised. Of course, it could have been much worse.

My view, which has been held since the beginning of the war, was that the war was a bad idea and that we had nothing to gain from fighting it or occupying Iraq. So far, nothing has happened to change my mind about this. I am, however,  pleased that the Iraqi people and the American forces were able to finally turn around the disaster that had been created and restore a significant degree of stability. The fact that this is something that we should not have had to do takes nothing away from the honor and sacrfice of the brave men and women who have literally helped save the day. But, such a terrible price Iraq and America paid for this (Iraq most of all).

Some might see this success as a vindication of Bush. That would, however, be a mistake. To use an analogy, to say that Bush’ s plans led to success would be like saying that a frat boy who threw a party that wrecked a house had a successful plan because other people came and rebuilt the house he broke. Obama, of course, does not deserve credit for the success either. After all, the majority of the work was done before he arrived in office. The credit belongs, of course, to the folks in Iraq and the Americans that made this possible.

Of course, the future is still uncertain. Iraq is still shaky and might well fall back into despotism or fragment into violence. While we are supposed to only be there until 2011, we might well be there much longer.

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