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VWN Product Review: Moral Machines

Moral Machines
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By Wendell Wallach, Colin Allen
Produced By Oxford University Press
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Debuting in late 2008, this book is the first tome dedicated explicitly to examining the challenge of building artificial moral agents, probing deeply into the nature of human decision making and ethics.

As it stands, AI agents are already approving financial transactions, controlling electrical supplies, and driving trains. Trials are underway on robot cab drivers and autonomous trucks. Military robots will soon have their own targeting and firing protocols. We are fast approaching an age where we need to take seriously the moral and ethical responsibility of AIs and robotics.

Colin Allen and Wendell Wallach argue that as robots take on more and more responsibility, they must be programmed with moral decision-making abilities, for our own safety. Taking a fast paced tour through the latest thinking about philosophical ethics and artificial intelligence, the authors argue that even if full moral agency for machines is a long way off, it is already necessary to start building a kind of functional morality, in which artificial moral agents have some basic ethical sensitivity.

They examine the strengths and limitations of traditional approaches to ethics, such as deontology and utilitarianism, and the issues that arise in attempting a top-down programming of such rules into a robot. But the history of ethics is replete with controversy over the adequacy of any proposed set of rules - for instance, it might seem logical if there is no possibility of stopping it, to switch a train from a track that will kill ten people, to a track that will kill just two ? the need of the many outweighs the need of the few. However, that same logic does not apply everywhere.

If you do, then picture a medical robot who analyzes a patient in an exam to find their condition is terminal. Knowing the length of the waiting list for organs, under those same needs of the many rules, the robot would feel entirely justified in harvesting from the still basically healthy patient in order to save more lives elsewhere.