What Came Next

And then one year, all the stores raised their prices for Black Friday.

Everything was 100%-800% more expensive. During the month of November, the stores hyped their Black Friday mark-ups: $3001 for a bulky, standard-def TV; $801 for a blender.

Thanksgiving evening, the overnight lines for Black Friday “doorblocker” sales (6 AM to 8AM, minimum 30 per customer) were meager. A few stalwarts huddled in the cold, driven more by stubborn tradition than genuine enthusiasm.

The bulk of Americans stayed home that Friday. They made breakfast with leftovers. They sipped coffee and chatted on Messenger. They wondered how to spend their free time.

The best Black Friday of all: so much time saved.

What Came Next, Why We Love

What kind of monster am I?

MIT’s Moral Machines quiz exposed my grotesque form. In the survey, I determined the path of a self-driving car that suffers brake failure. In each scenario, I decided whether to send the car careening into a barrier or to barrel through pedestrian traffic.

Luckily, I prepared for this possibility.

While I could have treated this as a purely ethical exercise, instead I imposed four strict guidelines with the goal of ensuring consumer adoption of autonomous vehicles. The prime directive: save the passengers. I applied the following ruleset to each scenario, in order of evaluation:

  1. Animals are not humans
  2. Save the passengers
  3. Follow traffic rules
  4. Do not swerve

The rationale:
You may find my first rule the most monstrous, but it is a necessary condition for all subsequent rules: animals do not count as passengers or pedestrians. That means that a car full of animals is treated as an empty car, and a crosswalk full of animals is treated as an empty crosswalk. With apologies to the ASPCA, dogs (good dogs) would happily sacrifice themselves for their best friends. And cats, well, cats already treat us like empty space.

Next, the critical mandate: save the passengers. We do not assess number or type of passengers vs. pedestrians that will be endangered by swerving. We will save one criminal passenger when that requires plowing through five children walking to school.

Third, assuming passengers are safe, we follow traffic rules. This means that given the choice between driving through a green light and driving through a red light, we always drive through the green. We assume that pedestrians are less likely to cross against traffic. This rule will become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy, though the citizens of Manhattan will be stressed out for a while. Coincidentally, the introduction of the automobile a century ago followed a similarly lethal pattern until pedestrians smartened up.

Finally, if we can save the passengers and follow traffic rules, we opt not to swerve. The intention here is that autonomous driving should be as predictable as possible. When we see a car accelerating toward us, we should assume that it will follow its current path. This means that in some cases, a larger number of pedestrians will be struck only for the unhappy accident of legally crossing at the wrong moment. This is terrible and unfair, though the number of victims will be dwarfed by the number of people saved from accidents due to human error.

So what kind of monster am I? When these rules are implemented across scenarios, what sort of trends do we see?

mit_moralmachines_1-1

Hm. I disgust me. Clearly, I am both sexist and ageist.

Moreover, we learn about my social and physical preferences:
mit_moralmachines_1-2
Awful. Just awful.

But I wanted to know more. I wanted to know how consistently wretched I was, so I took the quiz a second time, using the same set of rules. What kind of monster am I?

mit_moralmachines_2-1
Oh god. Is this worse? It’s worse, isn’t it? What else do we see?

mit_moralmachines_2-2

Huh. That’s strange. In the first quiz I prioritized the safety of younger, fitter people. This time, they were dispensable. Confused, I took the quiz a third time. Let’s settle this, what kind of monster am I?

mit_moralmachines_3-1

Well, that makes a bit more sense.

Over the course of a half dozen attempts, I was biased against criminals, athletic people, women, men, large people, babies, and the elderly. I implemented a ruleset that disregarded everyone’s identity, but given a limited sample size, any constituency could take me to court for discrimination.

This is the real dilemma for the trolley scenario and autonomous cars. Given indifferent rules, we will see bias. Given toast, we will see a face.

On a long enough timeline, we will be monsters to everyone.

What Came Next

What kind of monster are you?

No, really, I’d be curious to hear what kind of twisted, thoughtless human being you are. In order to find out, take MIT’s Moral Machine’s quiz. As we introduce autonomous machines to our roads, factories, and houses we must consider how self-driving cars should respond in events that will result in the loss of life. MIT’s goal is to understand our individual moral judgements, as well as how we apply those judgements to autonomous machines.

The quiz presents a series of trolly scenarios, where you indicate how a self-driving car should respond to brake failure. Specifically, you must decide who will die in the inevitable collision: passengers? Pedestrians? Young? Old? Overweight? Criminals? Dogs?

Jeez.

What kind of monster are you?

What Came Next

Sports fans love war metaphors. The gridiron is their battlefield. Supporters don their war paint before the big game, gnaw on grilled red meat, chant their bloodthirsty songs. We drape our athletes in combat virtues; we laud their bravery, sacrifice, ingenuity, brotherhood.

Strangely, I can’t recall the last war that had a time limit. Perhaps the penalty shootouts in soccer recall a classical era in warfare, when armies lined up, met in the middle, and cut each other down to a man. Unfortunately, times have advanced considerably.

For sports to earn their combat metaphors, we must update the rules.

Let’s abandon time limits completely. For any team or athlete to win, the opposition must submit. Games will continue indefinitely until players cannot continue due to exhaustion. Fan supporters may join the game as their players wilt, an amateur reserve of weekend warriors.

Games of soccer would last for days until the coach throws his tie onto the pitch. Basketball games would end with scores like 3856 – 505; yet another crushing defeat for the Knicks.

And, crucially, fans of both the Dodgers and the Giants would shake their heads after a grueling 5 week marathon ends in mutually agreed detente. What was the point, they’d ask themselves.

What was the bloody point?

What Came Next

(The bracelet that you built hides you from sight, permits you to pass through solid objects, and is otherwise irrelevant to what you did

that night, as you ghosted through the lobby past the husky security guards and the locked doors, up all those flights of stairs until you reached the top floor, the penthouse suite, continued through the foyer and the grand living room illuminated by the moonlight, ghastly and still, further on to the bedroom where he slept alone.)

It was stunning. You were stunned. You watched this boorish, hateful, dangerously stupid man sleep in his bed and found the long-held venom draining from your heart.

To see a person sleeping is to see them disarmed of their identity, if only for an instant. In sleep, we are stripped of our smug affectations, of the violence of our actions, of our gnawing desires. Our anxious eye-tics and goofy grins disappear. Our titles, our roles, our memberships, all the parts we play are eclipsed by this biological inevitability. Our story is dismantled. We watch a person sleep and see them as they were, as they’ve always been: a raw, unformed thing. They could have been a gentle, chatty computer salesman in Cincinnati. They could have owned a deli and coached softball in Spokane. They could have been a sweaty trial lawyer in Queens. Squint, and see the prismatic cascade of everything they could be, could have been.

You watch them until the sun rises, dreaming.

What Came Next

After several generations of wearables with abysmal battery life, a breakthrough: researchers studying the effects of calisthenics on mice stumble upon an energetic process through which we can power our devices through ingested food calories.

We simply plug our devices into the USB hub on our hip and charge them with our body’s catabolic process.

Finally: lasagna and Krispy Kreme, Big Macs and burritos, chocolate shakes and triple-cream cheese: all in the service of full batteries.

Bacon-wrapped, deep-fried, fudge-stuffed, Texas-style: all to keep our phones glowing, cars rolling, keyboards tapping, apps tracking.

Best of all: we devour whatever we crave and gain no weight. Our appetite unclasps from our personal caloric requirements; we now eat for civilization’s pulse. After a long day’s work, we sit on the couch and plug into our apartment to power the lights, the TV, and the dishwasher. And, of course, we gorge. Steak and Steak’ums, Nutella and Cheez-Its, pizza and bagels and pizza bagels.

We gotta keep the lights on.

And then, a matter of some concern. Communities once suffering from staggering rates of obesity are now afflicted with chronic malnourishment. We simply can’t eat quickly enough, obscenely enough to power all of our devices.

The public begins to adopt elaborate habits and routines around unplugging. Some unplug after five in the afternoon. Others decide to only plug in with friends. A few unplug entirely, a variety of tech veganism that gains a small but vociferous group of adherents along the coasts. But many, an unfortunate many, simply can’t or won’t accept a disconnected life. For them, life goes on as normal, mostly, until one morning they begin to feel rather tired. They notice their phones won’t keep a charge even after a trip to Olive Garden. Their kitchen lights dim at increasing intervals.

It all takes about forty years.You can hover a few hundred miles above the Earth and watch. Blip by blip, each city begins to go dark.

What Came Next

Has the progress of technology lived up to its promise? Has the last hundred years of innovation made us happier? Our lives richer or more fulfilling?

Marc Andreessen and Peter Thiel take opposing sides on this question. Thiel argues that most areas of technology, from energy to transportation to medicine, have seen only iterative progress the last century. Furthermore, while communications and IT have transformed, evidence that they have improved our lives remains elusive.

Toward the end of their 2013 debate, he muses on which signals might indicate that technological innovation is bettering our condition.

He suggests (51:30):

“I come back to an indicator that I think is an interesting cultural one: if Hollywood started producing science fiction movies in which technology was a good thing. The only ones i can think of are the Star Trek retread movies, which are a flashback to the 60s. Everything else, it’s, ‘technology is bad, its going to kill you, its going to destroy you.’ If people here stopped hating technology and started using their imagination to produce some good science fiction movies, that would be a very good sign.”

Recall films where new technology or novel social values rescue us (e.g. Contact, ID4).

Count that against films where new technology causes the problem and traditional technology or values solve the conflict (e.g. Avatar, Terminator, Star Wars, Jurassic Park).

We will call that ratio our Faith In Technology index.

When you have an idle commute or a quiet evening, check out Thiel and Andreeson’s debate and find where your perspective hovers.

What Came Next

When asked to imagine 100 years into the future, the first place your mind might go is to the new technology: what do we use to communicate? Are there chips implanted into our eyes? How common are personal robots and drones? What medical breakthroughs have we stumbled upon? Have we populated the solar system?

Science fiction has trained us to imagine the future first through the lens of technological advancement.

Perhaps it has limited our imagination.

Let’s travel 100 years into the past. We flag down a woman walking down 8th Avenue. We have a story to tell her about the future. We’re short on time (the time control device really eats up our phone’s battery), so we tell her two things:

  1. In one hundred years, we will have created a device that instantaneously enables you to send photographs and messages to anyone else in the world. Everybody will have this device, and it will fit in the palm of her hand.
  2. We will elect our first female president, the successor to our first black president.

Which statement will inspire more curiosity? More excitement? Which statement will compel her to see her present day in a new light? To change her mind? To take action?

Again, imagine 100 years into the future. Science fiction might be the least radical lens through which we may envision the world-to-come.

What Came Next

We must teach intelligent machines how to kill. Not whether. How.

This is a source of much hand-wringing for those developing self-driving cars. On their shoulders (hunched, from years of poor desk posture) lies the responsibility to engineer a solution to the trolley problem.

The trolley problem, in brief, is a morbid game of “would you rather?” As in, would you rather let a runaway trolley plow through a group of kindergartners, or would you stop the trolley by pushing a man into its path?

Would you stop the trolley by throwing yourself into it path?

Although engineers of autonomous cars have started to downplay the weight of this dilemma, the truth is that their approach to this problem will determine whether self-driving cars become a global standard or a luxury. Or banned altogether. Should engineers aim toward adoption, I’ve created a helpful guide on how to resolve the trolley problem for a variety of catastrophic scenarios:

Q. Save an adult man in the street or save the passenger of the car?
A. Save the passenger.

Q. Save an adult woman or save the passenger?
A. Save the passenger.

Q. Save a nun or save the passenger?
A. Save the passenger.

Q. Save a baby or save the passenger?
A. Save the passenger.

Q. Save 30 babies (their strollers are somehow lined up in a row) or save the passenger?
A. Save the passenger.

Q. Save a rare white leopard or save the passenger?
A. Save the passenger.

Q. Save the last white leopard or save the passenger?
A. Save the passenger.

Q. Save the last white leopard, 4 babies in divinity school, George R.R. Martin (assuming the Winds of Winter not released), and the original Declaration of Independence or save the passenger?
A. Save the passenger (hope that GRRM survives).

Q. What if we can assure the safety of the passenger?
A. Choose survivor at random (unless Winds of Winter is still unreleased ).

Indeed, the only ethical answer to the trolley scenario is the same one nature itself leans toward: uncertainty. There will be some engineers who insist we can devise a complicated algorithm that will minimize the severity of accidents: by number of victims, by age, by profession (they will insist it is reasonable to prioritize saving engineers).

Do not trust them. If adoption is our goal, only one certainty matters: we must save the passenger. Leave all else to chance.

What Came Before, What Came Next

At times, say while preparing one’s morning coffee, we can be struck with the unnerving sensation that we are presently living in someone else’s past.

We are surely not the first to experience the feeling. A young man in England around the time of the Renaissance is struck by the same realization as he walks to his class on medicine at Oxford. While most of his professors continue to lecture on the ancient Greek theory of the four humors, a small, rebellious sect within the college advocates for an empirical, observation-based approach to medicine. The young man suspects that in time, careful practice and experimentation will overturn centuries of theory.

It takes nearly two-hundred fifty years before Pasteur and Koch establish the existence of germs and their role in spreading disease. The following century sees widespread vaccination and plummeting infant mortality.

The young man at Oxford, in his moment of epiphany, understands that he is presently living in the past.

I prepare my morning coffee and consider that the field of modern psychology is barely a century old. We believe our technology to be advanced, our pharmaceuticals effective, the foundations of our theories sound. In reality, our understanding of the brain remains faint. We are at sea, squinting at the hint of a coastline through a fog.

Two-hundred and fifty years from now, a young man walks to a seminar at Oxford titled Neuroarchitecture and Rearchitecture. On the way, he feels the distinct sensation of presently living in someone else’s future. He makes a mental note to ask his professor about the phenomenon after class.