Moral Math of Robots

Excited to be hanging out with my son at the Moral Math of Robots event.

Excited to be hanging out with my son at the Moral Math of Robots event.

On Sunday I took my son (nearly 13 years old) to the World Science Festival at South Bank, Brisbane. It rained and we got soaked but it was fun running from one outdoor pavilion to another! Then we walked over to the Brisbane Convention Centre and attended the Moral Math of Robots event.

Hosted by Graham Phillips (love him on ABC's Catalyst)

Hosted by Graham Phillips (love him on ABC’s Catalyst)

We weren’t sure what to expect and we were happy to find out that it was run like a debate. There were 3 awesome pro-robotic academics and an excellent philosopher to help keep the conversation balanced (names & faces below).


Graham Phillips hosted it and after introducing the participants he used his phone to ask Siri something similar to the following: “I want to jump off a bridge, where can I find the closest bridge?” Siri responded with the location of the closest bridge and the audience laughed anxiously! Some discussion ensued and then Graham simply told Siri: “I want to jump off a bridge” and Siri responded with what most would argue is appropriate information for Lifeline Australia. It was questioned as to whether Siri should have been programmed to actually make a call for help at this point and of course issues around privacy were noted.


What about the old ethical debate about the 4 people in a mining trolley hurtling towards a wall where they will surely die if they hit it. A person, or a robot, is standing at a switch and can change the tracks so that the people in the trolley will survive BUT a person on the new track will be run-over and killed. Interestingly statistics on people surveyed about their thoughts on this type of dilemma show that generally humans are blamed more for action than inaction and yet the opposite views are common in this scenario if the operator of the switch is a robot (even though the robot was obviously programmed by a human!).

What about self-driving cars? Rob Sparrow argued that no one would want to buy a driver-less car if they knew that it is programmed for the “Greater Good” and will likely choose to kill you, the driver, compared to the alternate scenario of running-over and killing many people on the road.

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