The Ethics of Technology Design

We embed our values, biases and ethics in the design of our code. Including ethical problems in teaching technology is imperative to creating a nation of informed and civic minded leaders who will rely ever more on technology to govern and participate in the economy.  We are grateful to JUSTYN OLBY who created 21C Girls' first ethical problem for our Tech Star course.

Work on this ethical problem with your students. Download the full problem with the teacher guide here.


By Justyn Olby

Driverless cars are already becoming a reality. It is very likely that they will be on the streets of Singapore when you are adults. They require detailed programming to make them work on our roads. The programmers of the software have asked you to contribute to the programming of the cars’ response to emergency situations. It’s going to be important for their programming to represent the ethics of the societies that they will function in. So the programmers want to discuss some of these issues with the young people who will grow up with these cars on the roads.

As part of the safety system the cars have been programmed to swerve to avoid any pedestrians that walk out in front of them. However, the programmers need your help resolving a dilemma in this area.

The Dilemma

Imagine a scenario where the car is going down the road at 70km/h. A pedestrian suddenly jumps onto the road and the car cannot stop in time. It can only swerve to the right, into the lane used by oncoming traffic. If a pedestrian jumps in front of the car and the car swerves into the oncoming traffic then the likelihood is that the pedestrian will be safe, but the driverless car will hit another car coming the other way at a combined speed of 140km/h and the occupants of both cars will be killed or severely injured. If the car swerves left it will hit the wall and career off into the oncoming traffic, hitting the pedestrian along the way. If the car does not swerve it will hit the pedestrian and kill them.

In a case like this, should the car be programmed to hit the pedestrian or swerve into the oncoming traffic? It’s important to recognise that this programming will only take action if there is no other choice. The car will not be able to stop in time, and will have to swerve or go straight.  

Lesson Scaffolding

Answer the questions below:

  1. What is the core ethical problem?
  2. Who are potentially affected by the problem and its solution?
  3. What are the possible decisions or solutions to the ethical problem?
  4. Which arguments can be put forward for each of the possible solutions? (Try to be clear about how the argument is supported with the premises and conclusion being logically linked. Be particularly careful of deciding because it “feels” right/wrong).
  5. Which one of the possible solutions will you choose? (Think carefully about why this conclusion was the best possible one.)
  6. How do you, as a group feel about the decision?

Would the group’s decision change in any of the following circumstances? (We can assume that the driverless car’s computer will have time to see and recognise the different situations described below). 

  1. The pedestrian is a child.
  2. The pedestrian is an old lady.
  3. There is a group of pedestrians.
  4. The oncoming car is van full of construction workers. The driverless car has a family of five inside it.
  5. The oncoming car is an ambulance.

Why did your decision change or not change in each of the scenarios?

How do you personally feel about the decision made by the group?