Legislature should enact laws to regulate self-driving vehicles, says Prof Tshilidzi Marwala

Date: Jun 11, 2018 | News, Opinion Pieces

Leg­is­la­ture should en­act laws that will en­sure that th­e self-driv­ing cars and any in­tel­li­gent ma­chine in our fac­to­ries op­er­ate ac­cord­ing to our val­ues, which are based on the prin­ci­ples of Ubuntu, writes Professor Tshilidzi Marwala.

The Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg (UJ) and author of the book Smart Com­put­ing Ap­pli­ca­tions in Crowd­fund­ing, Prof Marwala recently penned an opinion piece, Laws to regulate self-driving vehicles, published by the Sunday Independent, 07 June 2018.

Laws to regulate self-driving vehicles

Last week, I pre­sented a talk in Par­lia­ment about ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence (AI), ethics and the law. For starters, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is in­creas­ingly be­ing used to per­form tasks pre­vi­ously done by hu­man be­ings.

The com­pany Uber makes more than R80 bil­lion a year. Com­pa­nies like Uber are man­aged ser­vices providers (MSPs) that con­nect cus­tomers to sup­pli­er.

Uber runs a taxi busi­ness but does not own any taxis. Be­cause th­ese MSPs are based on an IT plat­form and are domi­ciled in the cloud, they can eas­ily avoid lo­cal reg­u­la­tions and con­trol.

Uber has been mak­ing huge in­vest­ments into self-driving cars. They drive on our roads and, there­fore, are sub­jected to our rules and reg­u­la­tions, such as speed lim­its. So who is re­spon­si­ble for the fine if the self-driv­ing car runs a red light or drives over the speed limit?

Ac­cord­ing to our laws, if a driver is caught driv­ing over the speed limit, he or she – and not the car owner – is li­able for a fine. Given that a self-driv­ing car drives au­tonomously, do we still charge the owner?

A few weeks ago, a self-driv­ing Uber killed a pedes­trian in Ari­zona. Ac­cord­ing to preliminary in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­ports, this self-driv­ing car no­ticed her, be­fore run­ning her over.

If this car had had a driver, he or she would have been charged with in­vol­un­tary man­slaugh­ter, but as this was a self-driv­ing car, no one was ar­rested for the crime.

For Uber to have re­leased the car on to the roads, the chief tech­ni­cal of­fi­cer (CTO) would have had to give per­mis­sion. Is Uber’s CTO li­able for this al­leged crime?

It is time Par­lia­ment cre­ated laws to gov­ern au­ton­o­mous ro­bots. Sup­pose a self-driv­ing car is car­ry­ing four pas­sen­gers.

If it reaches a point where it has to ei­ther hit a pedes­trian or go over a cliff to avoid them, killing all of the pas­sen­gers, what should this car do?

The philoso­pher Jeremy Ben­tham came up with the the­ory of util­i­tar­i­an­ism. If the self-driv­ing car ap­plies util­i­tar­i­an­ism, it will do that which will bring the “great­est amount of hap­pi­ness to the great­est num­ber of peo­ple”.

So if it saves the four pas­sen­gers and kills the pedes­trian, then the pas­sen­gers will be happy to be alive. If it kills the pas­sen­gers and saves the pedes­trian, the pedes­trian will be happy to be alive.

Our leg­is­la­ture should en­act laws that will en­sure that th­ese self-driv­ing cars and any in­tel­li­gent ma­chine in our fac­to­ries op­er­ate ac­cord­ing to our val­ues, which are based on the prin­ci­ples of ubuntu.

To do this, our leg­is­la­tor will need to un­der­stand the prin­ci­ples of AI and its im­pli­ca­tions.

Our en­gi­neers will have to de­velop the ca­pa­bil­ity to be able to re­model th­ese ro­bots so that they are embedded with de­ci­sion-mak­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties in line with our val­ues.

Par­lia­ment should con­sider in­tro­duc­ing a law that guar­an­tees the ba­sic right to pri­vacy that can­not be taken away be­cause of some le­gal con­tract.

Stud­ies have shown that Africa is be­com­ing a home for clin­i­cal tri­als. How­ever, the South African reg­u­la­tory frame­work is strong and per­haps, through the Pan-African Par­lia­ment, it should help other African coun­tries to de­velop a ro­bust pol­icy to pro­tect hu­man lives.

To be able to reg­u­late tech­nol­ogy so we can pro­tect lives and hu­man dig­nity, we need to un­der­stand it.

Marwala is Vice-Chan­cel­lor and Prin­ci­pal of the Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg and the co-author of the book Smart Com­put­ing Ap­pli­ca­tions in Crowd­fund­ing. He writes in his per­sonal ca­pac­ity.

The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.


prof tshilidzi marwala

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