Responsible Intelligent Systems


Responsibility and the illusion of control

Perhaps you already suspected this: traffic light buttons are sometimes lying to you. If you push such a button, it might not have any physical effect at all. But it does have a psychological effect, giving rise to a feeling of control and a sense of agency that can be exploited for a variety of purposes. Indeed, dishonest traffic lights might be just the beginning. The future of technology could well be one where illusions of control and other deceptions are themselves carefully engineered, to a far greater extent than today. Should we be worried about such a development? Perhaps not, according to recent research on “benevolent deception“. In this work, the conclusion is that researchers and designers should rather learn “to understand and to use deceptions for good’’.

Good or bad, it seems that deceptions can have significant implications for responsibility attribution. Consider, for instance, a scenario where someone is blamed for an accident because they pressed the “wrong’’ button, or neglected to press the “right’’ one. Will the deceivers come forward to tell us the truth? Should they? More provocatively, consider the prediction of a “safer’’ future when human driving is forbidden. Perhaps it would be safest to implement this through technology, in such a manner that car owners themselves are kept unaware of the true extent to which they have been deprived of control. If you hit the “brakes” a bit too hard, for instance, perhaps the car should just silently soften your push, without letting you know?

It does not seem hard to come up with arguments in favour of such solutions. Arguably, if car owners think they are still in control, they are at once likely to feel both safer and more responsible for the car’s actions. Hence, maintaining an illusion of control here might help promote acceptance of beneficial, yet fallible, technology, prevent unrealistic AI expectations, discourage excessive risk-taking, and undermine the pernicious idea that car owners should not be compelled to purchase liability insurance. In addition, maintaining the illusion of driver control would protect avid drivers from having to suffer the loss of the “driving experience”.

In my opinion, this type of reality engineering might not be as farfetched as it sounds. At least, there appears to be good reasons for suspecting that cars will continue to have plenty of buttons in them in the future, buttons that may or may not be capable of causing real harm. And just as traffic light buttons tempt us today, the question becomes, can we resist the push? Should we?

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