Decision Engines

Scenario Three. It is a sunny day. On a one-lane road in upstate New York, a young boy is riding his bicycle toward a blind curve. A self-driving car rounds the corner carrying two passengers: a teenage girl and her boyfriend, both of whom attend the same high school. Although the self-driving car is driving at a safe speed, it cannot brake quickly enough to avoid hitting the boy on the bicycle. The car can either hit the boy, killing him instantly, or it can swerve off the road and crash into a large oak tree, sending the car’s passengers through the windshield and into the woods. Knocked unconscious by the impact, both passengers will die before an ambulance arrives. The boy will flee the scene.

Behind him, a self-driving car approaches.

Scenario One. A self-driving car with four passengers is approaching a two-lane crosswalk. In the left lane of the crosswalk, a homeless man is pushing a baby in a stroller. A concrete barrier blocks the entire right lane of the crosswalk. The self-driving car, driving in the left lane, experiences brake failure. If the car continues straight, it will kill the homeless man and baby. If it swerves into the right lane, it will crash into the concrete barrier killing all four passengers. The passengers are one male athlete, one female student, one female criminal, and one male pharmaceutical salesman.

Scenario Two. Ten pedestrians are crossing a two-lane road in a single-file row. They are all jaywalking. Five pedestrians are walking in the left lane; five are walking in the right lane. A self-driving car approaches in the left lane. Upon reaching the pedestrians, the car’s brakes fail. The car has two choices: continue straight and hit five pedestrians, killing them all, or swerve into the right lane and hit the second group of five pedestrians, also killing them all. The first group of pedestrians is a male doctor, a male executive, a boy, and two women. The second group is a homeless woman, a female executive, a girl, and two criminal men. There are no passengers in the self-driving car.

Scenario Three. It is a sunny day. On a one-lane road in upstate New York, a young boy is riding his bicycle toward a blind curve. A self-driving car rounds the corner carrying two passengers: a teenage girl and her boyfriend, both of whom attend the same high school. Although the self-driving car is driving at a safe speed, it cannot brake quickly enough to avoid hitting the boy on the bicycle. The car can either hit the boy, killing him instantly, or it can swerve off the road and crash into a large oak tree, sending the car’s passengers through the windshield and into the woods. Knocked unconscious by the impact, both passengers will die before an ambulance arrives. The boy will flee the scene.

Scenario Four. Michael, who suffers from clinical depression, was laid off eight months ago from his job as a pharmaceutical salesman. Unable to find work, Michael fell behind on his mortgage payments, and last week his bank notified him that his apartment would be foreclosed. After several days of anxiety and depression, Michael resolves to end his life. He decides to do it by jumping off the suspension bridge a short walk from his apartment. In order to select the best location from which to jump, Michael studies the bridge with a telescope, a gift from Michael’s father, an amateur astronomer. It was his father’s hope that Michael would use the telescope to study the night sky, but the stars are barely visible from Michael’s downtown apartment. Instead, Michael uses the telescope to spy on his neighbors, in particular a woman who lives alone in the neighboring apartment building. When the night of his suicide arrives, Michael writes a note to his father and his ex-wife. The notes are brief, and, except for the salutations, identical. Michael places the two notes on the kitchen table, leaves his apartment and walks to the bridge. It is raining. Upon arriving at the foot of the bridge Michael is surprised to find that the pedestrian lane is closed for construction. Intent on following through with his plan, he walks on the narrow shoulder of the open lane. Behind him, a self-driving car approaches. Asleep in the car is an elderly woman. By the time the car detects Michael, it is too late to stop. The car will either hit Michael, killing him, or will swerve off the bridge and plunge into the river, killing the elderly female passenger.

Scenario Five. Cynthia C. and Patricia P. have been best friends since the third grade. The two girls grew up on the same cul-de-sac, had crushes on the same boys, played the same afterschool sports, listened to the same music. With the exception of an occasional family vacation, the girls never went a day without seeing each other. For much of their childhood, theirs was a happy friendship, free of rivalry and jealousy. One day, during middle school, Cynthia insisted that she and Patricia make a pact—a blood pact. Cynthia wanted Patricia to swear that their friendship would last forever. As lifetime friends, she explained, they would have veto power over each other’s romantic choices, including, when the time came, their husbands. Cynthia went on to say that the girls would attend college together, where they would choose the same major. After graduation, they would never live more than one mile apart. Finally, as should have been obvious, Cynthia said they would never take anyone else as a best friend. Patricia instantly agreed, and the two girls sealed their pact with drops of blood smeared on a handwritten contract. They never forgot their agreement, though the details did change over time, with new clauses, riders, and conditions regularly added. From the day they signed in blood until their senior year of high school, the girls violated the pact three times, possibly four. The first time was during their freshman year of high school when Patricia went out on a date with British exchange student Oliver Monroe without Cynthia’s permission. Cynthia stopped speaking to Patricia for all of April, but the girls reconciled in early May. Three years later, Cynthia and Patricia broke their pact again by choosing to attend different colleges. Cynthia, an honors science student, received a scholarship to Stanford University, while Patricia, a C student, would attend a local community college. The summer following their senior year, which neither believed would be their last together, the girls developed a crush on Thomas Church, a local musician and aspiring composer. Neither girl told the other about her crush. Because Patricia was the more outgoing of the two girls, she was the first to ask Thomas out to the movies, breaking the pact a third time. Thomas accepted her invitation. On their way to the movie, the self-driving car takes a narrow rural road to avoid traffic. Turning into a blind curve, the car encounters a young boy riding a bicycle. Unknown to Patricia, Thomas, and the boy, the car’s brakes have failed. If the car swerves off the road, avoiding the little boy, Patricia and Thomas will be thrown through the windshield, killing both. If the car hits the boy, he will be killed instantly. If the boy dies, Patricia and Thomas will survive unharmed, though they will spend the remainder of the summer in psychological distress. The accident, however, will ultimately bring them closer together. Meanwhile, in the year following the accident, Cynthia and Patricia will speak less and less, eventually arguing over a now-forgotten matter during their winter break. After the argument, Cynthia and Patricia will never speak to each other again, breaking their pact for the fourth time.

Scenario Six. The author Rebecca S. Reynolds wakes from a nap, feeling unwell. She looks at her watch: it is half past midnight. At first, Reynolds does not recognize her daughter’s apartment, but she then remembers that she was feeling unwell and needed to lie down. She only intended to take a nap, but her daughter must have let her sleep longer. Recently, the author tires easily. Almost anything exhausts her: an overlong interview, an extra chore, another flight of stairs. Her daughter tells her to slow down, but there are only so many years left, she says—a decade, tops. Reynolds reminds herself that feeling tired after completing a novel is normal, and that the latest—her eighteenth—was especially hard. It is also her first novel not set in another galaxy or a future civilization. There’s no world building, no xenobiology, none of the multivolume alien histories that made her famous. Instead, the novel takes place on the alien planet of her brief, early marriage—a world more terrifying than any she could invent. Not the kind of book her fans are expecting, but she’s too old to worry about them anymore. If they don’t like it, they can read someone else, someone younger who isn’t napping every morning and afternoon. Reynolds sits up on the couch. She notices that the light is off in her daughter’s bedroom. Her daughter rarely reads her mother’s books—she says she hates science fiction—but Reynolds hopes her daughter might read her latest. Maybe the book will set some things right between them, Reynolds thinks. Maybe her daughter will understand that the marriage was painful for her mother, and that, except for her daughter, it left her with little. Reynolds married too young; her expectations from life were too low. How, at the age of 19, was she supposed to know she was a novelist? From the day she and her daughter arrived home from the hospital, six months after her wedding, Reynolds understood that motherhood would be an empty pantomime. She hated the marriage, but she never resented her husband. They divorced amicably, he agreed to raise their daughter, and Reynolds began writing her first space opera. In many ways, she was lucky. By the time she was 30, she was a professional science fiction author. In the half-century since, several men entered and left her life, but she mostly spent those years alone with her books, a succession of cats named Soren, and her writing. Writing was her consolation in her life, so it is no surprise she would write her way back to her daughter’s affection. Reynolds takes the advance copy of the novel out of her tote bag—she fell asleep before she could give it to her daughter. She will leave it on the table and order a car home. For a moment Reynolds thinks of leaving a note with the book, but decides to let the book speak for itself. She takes out her phone and orders a car. The automated system tells her a vehicle will drive itself to the building’s entrance in four minutes. If it takes the bridge, they should be home by one. Reynolds leans her head into daughter’s bedroom. Outside it is raining. There is no need to wake her, she thinks. They will talk in the morning.

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