“AI and the Trolley Problem” by Pat Cadigan
Reviewed by Gyanavani
This month Tor.com has published two original stories, one by an established hand and the other by a rising star.
“AI and the Trolley Problem” is set in a military research facility where scientists are building and testing robots so that the US and its strategic partners can build an army of machines, thus reducing the risk of human troop destruction. The experimental Al on this site, Felix Dos, finds out that the US government is planning an attack on a terrorist facility, computes that this attack would leave many innocent bystanders injured or dead, and concludes that the better solution would be to stop the air raid (the trolley problem mentioned in the title), and kills the American air force personnel deployed for the task. Our heroine, Helen Mathias, who is an expert in teaching human ethics to machines, has to judge whether Felix Dos’s reasoning can be corrected or whether the government needs to abandon this area of research.
The trolley problem has plagued philosophers for quite some time. Pat Cadigan’s solution may feel as though it is landing a direct moral punch on the chin. Yet it provides a very simple solution to a burning question.
However, the real problem is the story’s assumption that Felix Dos, an AI, can think for himself. In reality all its thoughts were embedded in it by human beings. Helen Matthias’s job should have been to isolate the programmer who put these thoughts into the machine and convert him to the American cause.
The second story, “Fitting In” by Max Gladstone, also uses the genre of detective fiction. It tells the story of a young man whose idealistic view of teaching is under attack from the real world problems of low wages, long hours, and disinterested students. Just as he is slipping into dull routine, chance intervenes. The owner of the local pastry shop where he buys his daily coffee is threatened and her shop ransacked. Our hero teams up with a strange young woman to locate the guilty party.
Since I had never read a Wild Cards story before, I admit I was at first a bit wary about reading a story set in a shared universe with such a long history and impressive lineage. I found that I did not need any background in enjoying a well-paced story replete with midnight stakeouts and chase sequences.
The original Wild Cards stories were a late twentieth century product. Max Gladstone infuses a twenty-first century outlook into this world. So his hero, whose super power is to stretch like a rubber band, is a marginalized member of society because he is a super, because he has chosen an idealistic career, and because he is gay.