A (Trolley Problem) Trolley Problem

Algorithm ethics as a trolley problem:

There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there is a trolley problem waiting. The trolley is headed straight for it, burdening you with an ethical dilemma to decide:

[There is a runaway trolley barrelling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing and allow the trolley to kill the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. What is the right thing to do?]

You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is an equivalent trolley problem on the side track. This other trolley probem will be decided not by you, it will be decided by an algorithm.

You have two options:

  1. Do nothing and allow the trolley to make you the sad hero of a trolley problem.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where an algorithm will take care of the problem job for you.

What is the right thing to do?

(Trolley problem description based on Wikipedia. Reductio ad absurdum inspired by this tweet.)

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