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Truly Autonomous Machines Are Ethical

Tae Wan Kim and John Hooker of the Tepper School of Business  at Carnegie Mellon University are looking at the intersection of technology and ethics. While researchers have been racing to develop the latest and greatest in autonomous machines, the public has been more reticent to embrace this change.

The authors highlight fears of losing control of the machines in an increasingly embedded world. In Pittsburgh, where smart cities and emerging mobility questions arise with the increase of autonomous machines on roadways, public input is tremendously important for the implementation of new technologies. The idea of respecting the autonomy of others, humans and machines alike, is a concern that the public feels could spiral out of control as robots begin to oppress humans. Hooker and Kim relate these fears to the idea of an autonomous vehicle as an independent, thinking agent with the ability to harm others without the understanding of responsibility.

According to the writers, there is widespread concern that as machines move toward greater autonomy, they may become a “law unto themselves” and turn against humans. Yet the threat lies more in how an autonomous machine is conceived rather than the machine itself. People tend to see an autonomous agent as one that sets its own agenda, free from external constraints, including ethical constraints. A deeper and more adequate understanding of autonomy has evolved in the philosophical literature, specifically in deontological ethics. It teaches that ethics is an internal, not an external, constraint on autonomy, and that a truly autonomous agent must be ethical. It tells how to make sure that machines are truly autonomous rather than simply beyond human control.


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