By: Joe McKendrick and Andy Thurai (Harvard Business Review)
Artificial intelligence is designed to assist with decision-making when the data, parameters, and variables involved are beyond human comprehension. For the most part, AI systems make the right decisions given the constraints. However, AI notoriously fails in capturing or responding to intangible human factors that go into real-life decision-making — the ethical, moral, and other human considerations that guide the course of business, life, and society at large.
Consider the “trolley problem” — a hypothetical social scenario, formulated long before AI came into being, in which a decision has to be made whether to alter the route of an out-of-control streetcar heading towards a disaster zone. The decision that needs to be made — in a split second — is whether to switch from the original track where the streetcar may kill several people tied to the track, to an alternative track where, presumably, a single person would die.
While there are many other analogies that can be made about difficult decisions, the trolley problem is regarded to be the pinnacle exhibition of ethical and moral decision making. Can this be applied to AI systems to measure whether AI is ready for the real world, in which machines can think independently, and make the same ethical and moral decisions, that are justifiable, that humans would make?
Trolley problems in AI come in all shapes and sizes, and decisions don’t necessarily need to be so deadly — though the decisions AI renders could mean trouble for a business, individual, or even society at large. One of the co-authors of this article recently encountered his own AI “trolley moment,” during a stay in an Airbnb-rented house in upstate New Hampshire. Despite amazing preview pictures and positive reviews, the place was poorly maintained and a dump with condemned adjacent houses. The author was going to give the place a low one-star rating and a negative review, to warn others considering a stay.
However, on the second morning of the stay, the host of the house, a sweet and caring elderly woman, knocked on the door, inquiring if the author and his family were comfortable and if they had everything they needed. During the conversation, the host offered to pick up some fresh fruits from a nearby farmers market. She also said she doesn’t have a car, she would walk a mile to a friend’s place, who would then drive her to the market. She also described her hardships over the past two years, as rentals slumped due to Covid and that she is caring for someone sick full time…