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Let’s Teach Smart Machines to Do the Right Thing

November 16, 2016, 5:22 PM UTC
Fortune-The Drive Los Angeles Auto Show 2016 autonomy ethics
Patrick Lin, Chris Gerdes, and Adam Lashinsky at the Fortune-The Drive dinner at the 2016 Los Angeles Auto Show.
Andrew Nusca/Fortune

I moderated a panel Tuesday night at a Fortune dinner during the LA Auto show. It was on the ethics of autonomous vehicles, a subject so broad it could fill a Ph.D. thesis, let alone a 30-minute discussion.

The short version is this: Humans react to crises, and no one faults them much for the consequences. Machines, aided by artificial intelligence, may well be held to a higher standard because they will be programmed to think through the ramifications of their actions, including killing one person to save many. Panelist Patrick Lin of CalPoly created this marvelous video to illustrate the conundrum. Stanford professor Chris Gerdes, on loan for the past year to the Department of Transportation, points out that deeper, more meaningful ethical solutions exist, like asking if adequate backup systems exist when machines fail. (Fortune’s Andrew Nusca covers the panel in more detail.)

Ethical quandaries won’t blunt the advancement of AI, of course. The key is in managing the machines. At Fortune, for example, we’ve paired journalists with IBM’s Watson to spot key trends in 2017, published today in our annual “Crystal Ball” package. The responsible, if not ethical, thing for me to do will be to check back in a year to see if the robots helped us any.

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By the way, I feel compelled to weigh in on Facebook and the “fake news” hullabaloo, given that my appreciation of Mark Zuckerberg and his management skills is on the current cover of Fortune. I explain how clearly and effectively Zuckerberg communicates. His Saturday evening post (get it?!) on Facebook addressing his company’s responsibility for the veracity of the information it publishes stands as anything but clear. It is as perfect an example of corporate cop-out-ery as I’ve ever seen.

Example: “Of all the content on Facebook, more than 99% of what people see is authentic.” That’s just not good enough. Facebook makes too much money and is too powerful to sidestep what used to be the responsibility of the free press. It is time for Mark Zuckerberg to move beyond platitudes and step up. Perhaps he could re-assign his personal, AI-driven assistant, Jarvis, to the case.