Will Autonomous Vehicles Make Us Better People?

A self-driving concept car is seen at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, California, on September 13th, 2018.

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.

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