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The trolley problem

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 29, 2015

The trolley problem is an ethical and psychological thought experiment. In its most basic formulation, you’re the driver of a runaway trolley about to hit and certainly kill five people on the track ahead, but you have the option of switching to a second track at the last minute, killing only a single person. What do you do?

The problem becomes stickier as you consider variations of the problem:

As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you — your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed?

As driverless cars and other autonomous machines are increasingly on our minds, so too is the trolley problem. How will we program our driverless cars to react in situations where there is no choice to avoid harming someone? Would we want the car to run over a small child instead of a group of five adults? How about choosing between a woman pushing a stroller and three elderly men? Do you want your car to kill you (by hitting a tree at 65mph) instead of hitting and killing someone else? No? How many people would it take before you’d want your car to sacrifice you instead? Two? Six? Twenty? Is there a place in the car’s system preferences panel to set the number of people? Where do we draw those lines and who gets to decide? Google? Tesla? Uber?1 Congress? Captain Kirk?

If that all seems like a bit too much to ponder, Kyle York shared some lesser-known trolley problem variations at McSweeney’s to lighten the mood.

There’s an out of control trolley speeding towards a worker. You have the ability to pull a lever and change the trolley’s path so it hits a different worker. The first worker has an intended suicide note in his back pocket but it’s in the handwriting of the second worker. The second worker wears a T-shirt that says PLEASE HIT ME WITH A TROLLEY, but the shirt is borrowed from the first worker.

Reeeeally makes you think, huh?

  1. If Uber gets to decide, the trolley problem’s ethical concerns vanish. The car would simply hit whomever will spend less on Uber rides and deliveries in the future, weighted slightly for passenger rating. Of course, customers with a current subscription to Uber Safeguard would be given preference at different coverage levels of 1, 5, and 20+ ATPs (Alternately Targeted Persons).

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