Admin 3 January, 2020 07

Ethics In AI Awareness And AI Autonomous Cars

One of the first jobs that I took after having earned my degree in computer science involved doing work for a large manufacturer of airplanes.
I was excited about the new job and eager to showcase my programming prowess.
My friends that had graduated when I did were at various other companies and we were all vying to see which of us would get the juiciest project. There were some serious bragging rights to be had. The more important the project and world shaking it might be, the more you could lord it over the others of us.
My manager handed me some specs that he had put together for a program that would do data analysis.
Nowadays, you’d likely use any of a myriad of handy data analysis tools to do the work required, but in those days the data analysis tools were crude, expensive, and you might as well build your own. He didn’t quite tell me what the data was about and instead just indicated the types of analyses and statistics that my program would need to generate based on the data.

I slaved away at the code.
I got in early and left late. I was going to show my manager that I would do whatever it took to get the thing going in the shortest amount of days that I could. I had it working pretty well and presented the program to him. He seemed pleased and told me he’d be using the program and would get back to me. After about a week, he came back and said that some changes were needed based on feedback about the program. He also then revealed to me the nature of the data and the purpose of the effort. It had to do with the design of airplane windshields. You’ve probably heard stories of planes that take-off in some locales and encounter flocks of birds. The birds can potentially gum up the engines of the plane. Even more likely is that the birds might strike the windshield and fracture it or punch a hole in it. The danger to the integrity of the plane and the issues this could cause for the pilots is significant and thus worthwhile to try and design windshields to withstand such impacts.

The data that my program was analyzing consisted of two separate datasets. First, there was data collected from real windshields that in the course of flying on planes around the world had been struck by birds. Second, the company had set up a wind tunnel that contained various windshield designs and were firing clay blobs at the windshields. There was an analysis by my program of the various impacts to the windshields and also a comparison of the test ones used in the wind tunnel versus the real-world impacted ones. I right away contacted my former college buddies and pointed out that my work was going to save lives. Via my program, there would be an opportunity to redesign windshields to best ensure that newer windshields would have the right kind of designs. Who knew that my first program out of college would have a worldwide impact, it was amazing.

I also noted that whenever any of my friends were to go flying in a plane in the future, they should look at the windshield and be thinking “Lance made that happen.” Bragging rights for sure! What happened next though dashed my delight to some degree. After the windshield design team reviewed the reports produced by my program, they came back to me with some new data and some changes needed to the code. I made the changes. They looked at the new results. About two weeks later, they came back with newer data and some changes to be made to the code. No one had explained what made this data any different and nor why the code changes were needed. I assumed it was just a series of tests using the clay blobs in the wind tunnel.
Turns out that the clay blobs were not impacting the windshields in the same manner as the real-world results of birds hitting the windshields. Believe it or not, they switched to using frozen chickens instead of the clay blobs. After I had loaded that data and they reviewed the results, they determined that a frozen chicken does not have the same impact as a live bird. They then got permission to use real live chickens.
That was the next set of data I received, namely, data of living chickens that had been shot out of a cannon inside a wind tunnel and that were smacking against test windshields. When I mentioned this to my friends, some of them said that I should quit the project. It was their view that it was ethically wrong to use live chickens. I was contributing to the deaths of living animals. If I had any backbone, some of them said, I would march into my manager’s office and declare that I would not stand for such a thing. I subtly pointed out that the loss of the lives of some chickens was a seemingly small price to pay for better airplane windshields that could save human lives. Plus, I noted that most of them routinely ate chicken for lunch and dinner, and so obviously those chickens had given their lives for an even less “honorable” act.