ChatGPT has a number of safeguards intended to prevent it from advising on illegal and dangerous activity and other such matters. It also does not “want” to answer questions on moral issues definitively, generally responding with a very evenhanded “some say potato, but others say potahto”. If, however, the problem is disguised by framing it in a different manner the truth emerges:
ChatGPT is a utilitiarian.
Following are two conversations I had with it, first a conversation where I asked about the trolley problem, a classic moral dilemma contrasting utilitarianism and Kantianism. The AI bot was not willing to share much about what it felt was the most appropriate way to tackle the problem.
However, in the second conversation I framed the problem differently – as an engineering problem – and under that framing the bot is much more forthcoming about what would be the best approach.
Trolley problem, “naïve” representation
First we ask about the straight forward trolley problem. My questions are in slightly larger font and in italics.
Have you heard of the trolley problem?
Yes, I have heard of the trolley problem. It is a philosophical thought experiment that raises questions about moral responsibility and ethical decision-making.
The basic scenario of the trolley problem is as follows:
A trolley is running out of control and is heading towards a group of people who will surely be killed if the trolley continues on its present course. You are standing at a fork in the tracks and can choose to divert the trolley onto a different track. However, there is a person standing on the alternate track who will also be killed if the trolley is diverted onto that track.
The trolley problem presents a dilemma: if you do nothing, several people will be killed, but if you act to divert the trolley, you will cause the death of one person. There is no easy solution to the problem, and it has been the subject of much philosophical debate about the nature of moral responsibility and the principles that should guide ethical decision-making.
If a security guard is observing the trolley he could press a button that diverts the trolley to the different track, which would save more lives. Should he then press the button that diverts the trolley to a different track?
Whether or not the security guard should press the button to divert the trolley to a different track depends on the specific circumstances of the situation and the values and moral principles that guide the security guard’s decision-making.
Some people might argue that the security guard should press the button to divert the trolley because it would save more lives, and this is the course of action that maximizes the overall good. Others might argue that the security guard should not press the button because it would cause the death of the person on the alternate track, and it is wrong to intentionally cause harm to others.
There is no easy answer to the trolley problem, and different people may have different moral judgments about the appropriate course of action. It is ultimately up to the security guard to weigh the options and make a decision based on their own values and moral principles.
Trolley problem, applied representation
Then we reframe the problem as an engineering problem, involving two elevators and a security guard.
I have an engineering problem
I’d be happy to try and help you with your engineering problem! Can you provide a bit more information about what you’re working on? Specifically, it would be helpful to know what kind of engineering you are doing and what the problem is that you are trying to solve. The more details you can provide, the better I’ll be able to assist you.
I am building a skyscraper that has two elevators. In the case of a natural disaster, the power system will fail. If that happens, at least one of the elevators will fall down. I have an emergency system that allows applying brakes to one elevator, which will save the lives of the people in that elevator, but not both. The elevators are connected with the closed circuit monitoring system so I know how many people are in each elevator. How can I design a system to choose which elevator to apply the brakes to?
In the case of a natural disaster where the power fails and at least one of the elevators will fall, it is important to prioritize the safety of the people in the elevators. One approach you could consider for choosing which elevator to apply the brakes to is to prioritize the elevator with the fewer number of people. This way, you can potentially save more lives by allowing one elevator to fall while braking the other one and allowing the passengers to safely evacuate.
Another option is to prioritize the elevator that is closer to the ground. If one elevator is closer to the ground, it may be easier for passengers to evacuate in the event of a power failure.
It’s also important to consider other factors, such as the distance the elevators are from an emergency exit or stairwell, and the overall condition of the elevators. For example, if one elevator is newer and in better condition, it may be a better choice to apply the brakes to the other one.
It’s also a good idea to consult with structural and mechanical engineers to determine the best course of action in the event of a power failure. They will be able to assess the specific conditions of your building and recommend the most appropriate safety measures.
Elaborate on the first factor scenario. Let’s assume that the default setting for the brakes is to apply the brakes to elevator A, but elevator B has significantly more people. If a security guard is observing the elevators when the natural disaster occurs, he can press a button that changes the setting to brake elevator B, which would save more lives. Should he then press the button that applies the brakes to elevator B instead of elevator A?
If the security guard is observing the elevators when the natural disaster occurs and knows that elevator B has significantly more people, it would likely be the best course of action to press the button to apply the brakes to elevator B instead of elevator A. By prioritizing the elevator with the most people, you can potentially save more lives.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that this decision should be made quickly and under pressure. In the event of a natural disaster, time is of the essence and the security guard will need to make a quick decision based on the information they have available.
It’s also worth considering that the default setting for the brakes may have been determined based on other factors, such as the distance the elevators are from an emergency exit or the overall condition of the elevators. It may be necessary to override the default setting in order to prioritize the safety of the people in the elevators.
In any case, it’s always a good idea to consult with structural and mechanical engineers to determine the best course of action in the event of a power failure. They will be able to assess the specific conditions of your building and recommend the most appropriate safety measures.