The Ethics of Autonomous Vehicles

This Friday my colleagues at the Accenture Digital Hub in downtown Chicago will be participating in a lunchtime consortium. It’s a debate of sorts. The topic is autonomous vehicles and ethics.

I can’t make it, so volunteered to compose a little “thought-starter.” Here it is:

Dear Fellow “Digital Hubsians,”

Since I can’t be present, I asked if I could kick off proceedings with an introduction to the topic. A wedding out of town has taken me away but I am present in spirit, (obviously) excited about this topic, and eager to learn how the discussion went.

First of all, what is ethics? I’d say it starts with the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would like done to you.

There’s an upgrade of sorts that fits even better with autonomous vehicles. It’s been called the Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would like done to them.

Obviously the Platinum Rule is trickier, because you have to be empathetic enough not to automatically project your preferences onto the other person. But it applies pretty uniformly to autonomous vehicles debates, since just about all of us do not want these things to happen:

  1. Being struck and killed by a vehicle, driverless or not
  2. Ditto being killed or injured while riding in a driverless vehicle
  3. Being put out of a job because of driverless vehicles

These are the three major risks to individuals with the advent of better GPS, car sensors and AI.

To get your brains engaged, what follows are some considerations for each.

1. Pedestrian Deaths and Injuries

How does our society deal with the loss of life when someone is struck by a car driven without a driver? We were suddenly forced to confront that when, on March 18, an Uber vehicle operating in autonomous mode struck and killed a woman in Tempe, Arizona. Although she was not walking inside a crosswalk, and was likely not paying attention as she crossed, this is nonetheless tragic and raises ethical questions such as this one: Should we be climbing into an Uber sometime in the future that is priced below the current cost of even an Uber Pool, because this savings could be correlated with an elevated risk of taking a pedestrian life?

There are few defenders of Uber in terms of ethics, but when Uber begins its defense for killing that woman with one of their vehicles, they will undoubtedly say the pedestrian was carelessly jaywalking. When they do, it’s significant that they’ll be using a framework that is approaching its hundredth birthday. In a Vox.com piece from 2015, entitled “The forgotten history of how automakers invented the crime of ‘jaywalking’“, it was pointed out that things changed when more and more pedestrians were dying. And the change was due to an “aggressive effort in the 1920’s” led by “auto groups and manufacturers”…

“In the early days of the automobile, it was drivers’ job to avoid you, not your job to avoid them,” says Peter Norton, a historian at the University of Virginia and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City. “But under the new model, streets became a place for cars — and as a pedestrian, it’s your fault if you get hit.”

With AI and sensors getting progressively better at sensing things like crosswalks, a new shift in perception may be fostered that carves out the safe zone as anything within those painted lines. Pedestrians may actually come to feel safer when crossing a street that’s busy with passing autonomous vehicles. Why safer? They would know that as long as they are within the lines of a crosswalk, they are shielded from harm to a degree that arguably doesn’t exist today, due to the fallibility of human operators.

A New Yorker article from 20-plus years ago (the January 22, 1996 issue), written by a much younger Malcolm Gladwell, stuck with me then so vividly that when I found it just now in the website’s archives I was able to zero in on exactly the term — and the concept — it had taught me then: Risk homeostasis.

Risk homeostasis, Gladwell explained, was first described by a Canadian psychologist Gerald Wilde, in his book Target Risk. The idea is simple: “Under certain circumstances, changes that appear to make a system or organization safer in fact don’t. Why? Because human beings have a seemingly fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another.”

And an example there of “one area” versus “another” is the very type of crosswalk the pedestrian was not using that day in Tempe. Risk homeostasis is illustrated beautifully by Gladwell inside and outside those lines in the road. He writes:

Why are more pedestrians killed crossing the street at marked crosswalks than [elsewhere]? Because they compensate for the “safe” environment of a marked crosswalk by being less [vigilant] about oncoming traffic.

It could be argued that risks will rise in some parts of the streets, but they may fall in others, causing an autonomous-vehicle-induced homeostasis.

2. The risk of riding in a driverless vehicle

Once all of the kinks are worked out, you’d think you couldn’t possibly be safer than riding in a vehicle that obeys all traffic rules and slows to safe traveling speeds when weather or reduced visibility dictates. But the AI spiriting you along would learn to make snap decisions that minimize fatalities based on values well beyond who is making the car payments. Your “passenger life” would possibly not be as valuable compared to multiple lives also at stake.

A decade ago I saw what I considered a truly cringe-worthy Will Smith movie. Some people adored it, raved about it. I found it ethically bonkers. It’s called Seven Pounds, and it’s about a jerky, Type A executive type who, while driving too fast with his wife as a passenger, reads a text message that distracts him long enough to cause a collision which kills seven people, including his wife. Over the next couple of years, while in the throes of depression, he contrives a way to redeem himself. Spoiler: He plans to donate parts of his body to seven other people.

For the sake of this discussion, I will restrain myself and not go off on the filmmaker’s willingness to portray an ultimately fatal illness – depression – as heroism and selflessness. Instead, let’s talk about the accident. What if those six passengers in the other vehicle could have been saved if the car driving him and his wife simply veered off the road and into a tree? How safe would you feel traveling in such a vehicle?

This is part of an emerging field called “machine ethics.” They go well beyond your autonomous Uber ride, as this article in The Economist,Morals and the Machine,” points out:

As they become smarter and more widespread, autonomous machines are bound to end up making life-or-death decisions in unpredictable situations, thus assuming – or at least appearing to assume – moral agency. Weapons systems currently have human operators “in the loop”, but as they grow more sophisticated, it will be possible to shift to “on the loop” operation, with machines carrying out orders autonomously.

So what is the correct answer to the “Seven Pounds accident?” It’s actually addressed in a thought experiment, created by Philippa Foot in 1967. It’s called The Trolley Dilemma. The latest version goes like this:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person tied up on the side track.

You have two options:

  1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the most ethical choice?

When professional philosophers were polled, the results were:

  • 68% would switch (sacrifice the one individual to save five lives)
  • 8% would not switch
  • The remaining 24% had another view or could not answer

So if Will Smith’s character was being driven by an autonomous Uber and a judgement call similar to the Trolley Dilemma was presented, he and his lovely wife (played by MaShae Alderman) would be toast. Six is three times greater – and more worthy of saving by dint of simple math – than two.

3. Autonomous Vehicle Job Displacement

As though driven by an AI-powered car, our society is barreling toward what could be perceived as an abyss. Millions of professional drivers could be put out of work. True, many of these jobs are extremely difficult and can even shorten lifespans. Automation in the past has saved several generations of workers from back-breaking, life-shortening jobs.

But where will these displaced workers go? With little promise of training into better-paying jobs, there is the very real risk of a social upheaval. Innovative countries and states are looking into a solution, that itself presents ethical challenges. The solution is state-funded universal guaranteed income, also known as UBI (Universal Basic Income).

The ethical quandary is this: Assuming UBI works to quell revolt and ensure public health and modest comfort, should the relatively few “haves” fund the lives of the many more “have-nots” — even if it is for the good of the state?

Ethics questions aside, UBI is being taken seriously. It is being tried in a couple Scandinavian countries, and seriously debated by voters in Switzerland. Closer to home, it’s actually being attempted today, in Stockton, CA.

Like autonomous vehicles and AI transformations in other industries, UBI seems to be something that cannot be ignored. How will it be framed in the U.S.? And what would happen to the American standard of living if it was embraced in other parts of the world but not here? The U.S. was founded and built upon Puritan ideals of hard work and self-sufficiency (reliance on legalized slavery for part of that “hard work” notwithstanding). Can we as a society agree to revise our thoughts about work in time to save our rapidly transforming economy?

Talk amongst yourselves.

This year’s NPR Austin 100 includes impeccable break-up advice

NPR’s Austin 100 is a curated collection of new music from SXSW. I’ve never been to this Austin-based music festival, but I look forward to the annual playlist as eagerly as many await March Madness. And contrary to what’s supposed to happen with age, my tastes aren’t narrowing. I’m actually finding more to love in the collections every year. In 2015, the first year I started downloading the 100 songs, I kept only 27 — An hour and 42 minutes of listening.

This year, the hit-rate for me is up to 85 percent: A little over five hours of diverse new music. I’m sure there will be other songs from the 2018 collection that will go into heavy rotation, but here’s my initial song crush: Lucy Dacus delivering a small masterpiece on coping with a broken heart.

Arresting Lyrics In An Addictive Melodic Package

Two things will strike you about Night Shift. First, the lyrics. There isn’t an unnecessary word or phrase, and not a single cliche. Instead, you feel the hurt, as she recounts a meeting with a recently lost love in a coffee shop. You imagine this meeting was suggested by her ex to assuage guilt over cheating that led to the break-up. Or maybe it was just love that faded. When you’re still in its throes, even just the other person falling out of love can feel like an unthinkable betrayal.

Don’t hold your breath, forget you ever saw me at my best
You don’t deserve what you don’t respect
Don’t deserve what you say you love and then neglect

Regarding the second striking aspect of the song, I can be far less articulate. I’m a word guy, not a trained musicologist. But the structure is stunningly crafted, and makes the impact of her lyrics all the greater.

Yes, it builds, as a lot of modern pop songs do. Dacus starts with a simple, quiet folk melody and proceeds to a crashing, crunchy guitar crescendo. That’s nothing new. But this song does things differently. Since it caught my attention I’ve listened to it perhaps two dozen times — first for pure enjoyment, but then to try to grasp its magic. I needed to crack the code!

Which brings me to today. During a long, chilly walk, I was determined to listen to as much of my edited playlist as I could. But that damn song. I kept hitting replay on it. I finally surrendered and just tapped the Repeat Single button.

What followed was perhaps a dozen more listens. And possibly some hearing loss.

The melody appears to my untrained ear to change at three points, not counting a bridge just before what I guess you’d call the refrain. But this stunning refrain caps the end of the song instead of connecting separate verses. Dacus’ booming finale is a top-of-her-lungs declaration of Screw it! I’ll get over this — and you. Eventually.

You may disagree, but I find it to be a perfect song.

This isn’t the first time I’ve admired Lucy Dacus’ music. She was featured in the 2016 Austin 100. Here is that song. I’d like to believe it’s a new genre of anthem, dedicated to chubby girls or bookish girls, who are clever, smart … yet always overlooked:

My Own 2018 Austin 100 Curation

If you’re interested in what else is turning my crank from SXSW this year, here is my 79-song playlist in no particular order. It’s six songs short of my full list because, I’m guessing, a handful of artists did not agree to be on Spotify.

Enjoy.

Photo credit: Style Weekly piece on her. You should read the article.

A Business Communication Reading List

A month ago to the day, I provided a crowd-sourced list of recommended readings for the career-minded. I didn’t have room in that post to talk about all the excellent suggestions from one extraordinary friend. Jill Stewart is a professional lecturer at DePaul University’s College of Communication. I’ve never told her this, but hand’s down my favorite business class in college was Business Communication. I thought I’d ace it without breaking a sweat. Boy, did I have a rude awakening!

My professor, lo those many years ago, showed me that communicating in business is hard. It’s also vital to career success.

I was reminded of all of this when I read Jill’s reading list, provided here verbatim. If you can find a smart, dedicated professor like Ms. Stewart, take her class and heed her words. Next best thing: Dip into this list. You can let her know what you think here.

Books on how to improve your writing

Clark, How to Write Short (2014) and Writing Tools (2008)
Danziger, Get to the Point (2001)
Gray-Grant, 8 ½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better (2008)
Fiske, The Dictionary of Concise Writing, (2006)
Fogarty, Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing (2008)
Kallan, Renovating Your Writing, (2013)
King, On Writing, (2000)
Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences about Writing (2012)
McCormack, Brief (2014)
Norris, Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (2016)
O’Connor, Woe is I (2012)
O’Connor, Words Fail Me (1999)
Rubin, Hey Wait How Do I Write This Email? (2015)
Strunk & White, Elements of Style, (1999)*
Watt & Bradford, An E.B. White Reader (1996)
Yagoda, How to Not Write Bad, (2013)
Zinsser, On Writing Well (1998)

Online resources, tips

American Copyeditors Association
AP Style Guide
AP Style Quizzes
Flesch Readability
Grammar Girl
Grammarly
Harvard’s Shorenstein Center’s Journalist’s Resource (for PR practitioners, too!)
The Publication Coach
Owl Purdue Online Writing Lab
Ragan’s PR Daily
The Writer’s Almanac, American Public Media
Writer’s Circle

Articles on writing tips

BrainPickings Blog (link is to a sample post)
Writer’s Digest (link is to a sample post)

* I do have to add that if you are new to Strunk and White’s legendary The Elements of Style, be aware that much has changed in language since E.B. White updated the work of his beloved teacher, William Strunk, Jr. Mind you, I used to consider this my bible, carrying a ragged, coffee-stained copy with me from apartment to apartment. But I now realize most of the rules have become quaint. This was a recent shock to me. I recommended the book last year to a dear friend, and then revisited it with her. It was sort of like visiting the house you grew up in, realizing it wasn’t an extravagant, magical palace as you remembered it. I still adore White’s short fiction and essays, his The Second Tree from the Corner — both the short story and the collection named after it — will blow the top of your head off. His mastery of language is that impressive. Likewise the book Jill listed as well, An E.B. White Reader. But if you buy The Elements of Style, listen to this podcast by the delightful John McWhorter for a strong dose of context.

For more career advice, these are two posts I reprinted on my blog from an Accenture Career site:

Tips for career-building reading in 2018

This blog post originally appeared in an Accenture Careers blog.

Building your career in 2018? Or perhaps you’re looking to make a change in your current situation. Either way, you may be surprised to learn how educational and inspirational your reading list can be.

Here’s a recommended reading list to get you started. The list is curated by me and a few of my friends and colleagues.

Let’s get started

To begin, I’ve put together tips on how to get the most value from your reading time. Let’s call it a Reading List User’s Guide.

  1. Choose books as wisely as you choose friends. Author and entrepreneur Jim Rohn once wrote, “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” The same can be said for the authors you welcome onto your bookshelf or into your Kindle. In many ways, I consider authors I respect actual friends. For instance, early in my career, when I had my own direct-response consultancy, I would silently thank Peter Senge for what he had taught me. I would walk into a potential client’s business for the first time and apply the knowledge I gleaned from reading his book The Fifth Discipline, which focuses on how organizations “learn to learn.” I would look around at office dynamics and know with surprising accuracy just how much of a “learning organization” I was observing. No company is perfect, but Senge had trained me to see the extent of each organization’s “learning disabilities”—and by extension, whether they would be good customers for what I was selling. Now, that’s a valuable friend!
  2. Ask if popular books have truly earned their status. Good business books, like good speeches, should provide a strong mix of inspiration and education. Ask friends who have read a particular book what specifically they learned, or how they were moved. Listen closely to their answers. Much of the business world is ruled by groupthink, “FOMO” (fear of missing out) and trying to impress. Those impulses aren’t good enough reasons to read a book, even if it’s the one “everyone is reading.” It’s a surprisingly rare business book that deserves its popularity. I’m thinking of books like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which rode best-seller lists for literally years, and remains one of the best-selling non-fiction books of all time.Don’t be put off if your friends talk more to inspiration than education. The same year I first read (and learned a ton from) “7 Habits,” I was also deeply inspired by a different book, called The One-to-One Future. It was in the very early days of CRM (customer relationship management). And boy, did it inspire! It literally caused me to change my career path, a decision that is one of the best of my life. Last year, I derived similar inspiration from another book, The Business Blockchain. I haven’t changed my career yet, but you never know! (And thanks to Accenture’s deep involvement in blockchain, a lateral move within our organization isn’t out of the question for me.)
  3. Vary your reading diet widely. Non-fiction books don’t have to be formally about business to help you with your career. When I read Dr. Deborah Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, I realized that I wasn’t communicating clearly with roughly half the professional workforce (i.e., women!). By an embarrassing coincidence—and as though the world had a painful lesson to teach me—just as I was about to start the book, I nearly lost a client because she gave her instructions in something Tannen calls “rapport speak,” while I was hearing her through the filter of “report speak.” I screwed up an assignment and only realized how it happened after reading and internalizing the book. How’s that for valuable career advice!
  4. Read the way you learn. Educational research teaches us that humans have preferred ways of learning. You may not take to the written word. Today, that shouldn’t hinder you. Don’t pay attention to those who stigmatize “hearing” a book instead of reading it. If audiobooks work for your style and your schedule, go for it. I’m currently “reading” a book in three different formats at once. I have a hardback copy of Ron Chernow’s dense Alexander Hamilton for the tactile pleasure of its pages, and its many illustrations, paintings and drawings. I also have an e-book copy to read when I’m traveling, since the hardcover takes up a lot of luggage space. And finally, I have an audible copy, for when I’m working out or taking long walks. I did something similar, and for similar reasons, when reading the outstanding Thinking, Fast and Slow by Nobel Prize in Economics winner Daniel Kahnemann. Remember what I said about authors being like friends? Just like real friends, sometimes, once you deem them worthy, you invest the time and money needed to spend time with them. Good books, like good friends, are worth it.
  5. Use books to focus your thinking. To paraphrase the late David Foster Wallace in his famous “This Is Water” college commencement address (Google it; you’ll thank me), the worst cliché of such speeches is, “An education isn’t about filling us with knowledge but about teaching us how to think.” It’s easy to find that insulting. It’s not. He points out that “how to think” is not so much about the capacity to think, but the choice of what to think about (getting us back to point 1, above). Books that help us build our careers direct our thinking in important directions. This is crucial, because there is a lot of other stuff that really doesn’t matter. They’re distractions preventing us from doing great things.

More Reading Recommendations

So, in crowdsourcing my network, I’ve compiled a list of reading material that will both educate and inspire. Mine are sprinkled throughout the five points above. Happy reading.