A week ago, an e-mail newsletter article published by Information Week in honor of Halloween caught my attention. The title was 14 Creepiest Ways to Use Big Data.

The creepiest one for me was number 8, Someone’s Time is Up, which focused on potential software design issues associated with self-driving cars.

This article reads in part: Eventually, a decision will have to be made around programming a self-driving car to either sacrifice the lives of the vehicle occupants or the life of others when death is inevitable," said Wah-Kwan Lin, data scientist at advanced analytics software provider Lavastorm Analytics, in an interview. "This is a situation where you're allowing the technology, and the people behind the technology, to decide life-or-death scenarios. Realistically, the formulation of the algorithms and programming parameters should be guided by the data. It comes down to what parameters we use to decide the value of a life.

The question of who decides who lives and who dies has become increasing important in the provision of medical care. It is at the core of bioethics.

One of the earliest articles exploring this issue was published in Life magazine in 1962.  It was entitled They Decide Who Lives, Who Dies. This article reported on what was then a new medical technique for treating kidney failure called hemodialysis. Much of the article focused on interviews with the members of the committee that was established to decide who would be treated and who would not.  Not being treated meant death.

Balancing of interests is often a factor in making decisions based on risk and on choosing appropriate operational controls.

When one of the risks being assessed may involve life and death, risk-based decision-making is much more difficult.

This is frequently the case for occupational health and safety risks. For safety and health professionals, new control technologies may add an ethical dimension to the concepts of hierarchy of control and prevention through design. 

Related resources:

For another reference dealing with this issue, check out the book Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decidesby Sheldon Ekland-Olson, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

To read a transcript of the Life magazine article, click here.