Confucius, Socrates, and Asimov Walk into a Bar– and in front of a Driverless Car

James Frank McGrath

Butler University


It is a well-worn setting for a joke that has three famous individuals or categories of individuals walk into a bar. In this paper, the three individuals are Confucius, Socrates, and Isaac Asimov. Our intention in sending them to this venue together is not entertainment, but a very serious ethical matter. However, in order to tackle the moral conundrum we have set for ourselves related to machine ethics, it is necessary that we get our three famous thinkers as drunk as we can. After we have accomplished that aim, they will inevitably stagger out of the bar (despite protestations from the robot bartender) and into the street, where they find themselves in the path of a driverless car. The main focus of this essay is to explore the more sober thoughts attributed to these individuals, and to apply them to the programming of driverless cars so as to better cope with this scenario, namely one in which a driverless car has to choose between absolute prioritization of the safety of its passenger(s), and avoiding injury or death to those that get in its way.

The paper will be explore a number of relevant scenarios that appear throughout science fiction, as well as focusing particular attention on whether and to what extent science fiction author Isaac Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics offer a solution in terms of a hierarchical prioritization of goals. It will also engage a question related to the broader project on “Artificial Wisdom” that it emerges out of: is wisdom compression – in this case, the ability to reduce ethical reasoning to principles that may be broadly applied, so that a driverless car – or, for that matter, a human person – need not have specific instructions about every conceivable situation in order to act appropriately. The potential ability for an automated car to apply the ethical principles programmed into it consistently and speedily when an accident becomes imminent may make the use of driverless cars fundamentally superior with respect to ethical reasoning than leaving driving in the hands of humans. As the paper will illustrate through its exploration of this topic, science fiction is of great practical relevance to the exploration of real-world ethical issues in the present day.

2018 National Conference
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