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Will Autonomous Vehicles Make Us Better People?

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Research finds that programming driverless cars ahead of time inspires a person to move away from egocentric decision-making.

There has been much speculation about how the coming wave of self-driving cars will change our lives. New research offers a welcome possibility: This new technology may prompt us to shift our thinking away from our own desires, and more toward the common good.

In a series of experiments, participants “programmed their autonomous vehicles to act more cooperatively than if they were driving themselves,” writes a research team from Northeastern University, the University of Southern California, and the United States Army Research Laboratory.

The researchers, led by Celso de Melo, report that making driving-related decisions in advance of a trip shifts our focus away from “selfish, short-term rewards.” The results point to the possibility of “designing autonomous machines that contribute to a more cooperative society.”

The study, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, documents this effect in a series of experiments. The first featured 96 Americans recruited online, who took part in a classic “prisoner’s dilemma” experiment with three other people.

The computer-simulated scenario was simple: Participants were asked to decide whether to turn on the air conditioner after a car they were traveling in came to a stop. Half made the choice in the moment, while the others programmed the decision in advance. This scenario was repeated 10 times in total; participants made simultaneous decisions without communicating with one another.

The central result: “Participants were statistically significantly more likely to turn off the AC when programming their autonomous vehicle to act on their behalf than when driving themselves.”

In other words, they were more likely to make a decision that saved energy and was thus good for the environment if they made it in advance rather than in the moment. Intriguingly, this held true regardless of the participants’ self-assessment of where they stood on the selfish-to-selfless scale.

Follow-up experiments with larger samples replicated these results, and pointed to reduced focus on short-term reward as the apparent catalyst for the programmers’ environmentally friendly behavior. Sitting at a stoplight, you’re more likely to reflexively turn on the air conditioning to decrease your discomfort; thinking ahead, you’re more prone to consider the tradeoffs involved.

In one experiment, this pattern persisted even when participants were permitted to change their minds at any time. In another, it was found to be independent “of whether others behaved cooperatively or competitively.”

At this point, precisely how we will interact with driverless cars and other high-tech conveniences remains highly uncertain. Some cars will presumably program themselves to a large extent.

But these results suggest that, when humans are given autonomy at the outset to make key decisions, the process stimulates us to consider factors beyond our own needs and wants. Going driverless just may inspire selflessness.

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