Now that we have an “Internet of Things” and devices that make ethical decisions, the next step was bound to be weird. Designer Simone Rebaudengo has created a smart fan with a built-in ethical dilemma: it can only fan one person at a time. To decide who will benefit from its cooling powers, the fan outsources its problem to Mechanical Turk, and the crowd decides which person in the machine’s range deserves fanning.
Rebaudengo’s invention is an art project called “Ethical Things.” Its inspiration came from battlefield robots and autonomous cars, both of which are loaded up with algorithms that help the machines make life-or-death decisions all the time. But what about the more mundane ethical decisions we have to make every day? That’s where the fan comes in. “If a ‘smart’ coffee machine knows about its user’s heart problems, should it accept giving him a coffee when he requests one?” asks Rebaudengo. His fan is a humorous way of imagining a future of ordinary connected devices that nevertheless face these kinds of moral dilemmas because they have so much access to data about the humans who own them.
The “Ethical Things” project looks at how an object, facing everyday ethical dilemmas, can keep a dose of humanity in its final decision while staying flexible enough to accommodate various ethical beliefs. In order to achieve that, our “ethical fan” connects to a crowd-sourcing website every time it faces an ethical dilemma. It posts the dilemma it’s facing and awaits the help of one of the “workers,” or mechanical turks, who will tell the fan how to behave. Thus, it assures that the decision executed by the system is the fruit of real human moral reasoning. Moreover, the fan is designed to let the user set various traits (such as religion, degree, sex, and age) as criterion to choose the worker who should respond to the dilemma, in order to assure that a part of the user’s culture and belief system is in line with the worker, or ethical agent. (Should it be a middle-aged Muslim male with a PhD or a young Atheist female?)
For anyone who has ever traipsed around the Internet, the choices that Rebaudengo offers for belief systems seem rather pointed. Especially when we see what happens in the video above, when a young atheist decides the fan’s ethical dilemma by saying it should fan the “thinner” person because, as he puts it, “I don’t like fat people.” Ah, the ethics of crowds. We truly live in the future.