Motor Mouth: French courts rule on future autonomous driving fatalities

This post was originally published on this site

The French are different than you and I. And by the French, I don’t mean our Quebecois neighbours, who with their recent provincial election, are proving more and more like the rest of Canada. I’m talking about their continental cousins who, I am pretty sure you’ll agree, are a folk totally — what’s the polite way to say this — unto themselves.

Now, we can make fun of some of their bass-ackward traffic rules or their propensity to use collective bargaining as extra holidays. But that doesn’t change the fact that France has a long and storied — perhaps the longest and most storied — history of democracy. More importantly, they like to both exercise and celebrate it. To wit: Starting last year, every October 4, they celebrate the adoption of their “Fifth Republic” constitution in 1958. Nothing strange in that, you say? True. But how they celebrate this liberalization, now that is, by North American standards, just plain weird. Downright participatory, in fact.

In something dubbed #nuitdudroit — quite literally “the night of the law” — ordinary citizens join hands with (will wonders never cease) lawyers, as well as judges and reporters, to voluntarily stage mock trials governing the issues of the day. Now, I think it’s fair to say such an exercise would go largely unnoticed on this side of the pond — there being little disco-dancing or mindless violence involved — but in France, this is a huge deal. City councils, large and small, each organize their own individual faux legal proceeding, said proceedings are recorded for posterity and, perhaps most incredibly, some of these courtroom dramas are so well attended that there’s standing room only. Like I said, the French are different.

Now, I couldn’t give a hoot about how distantly one can disown one’s children — though the basement troll sorely tested that question in his teenage years — or the fact that the president of French Polynesia presided over an incredibly meaningful discussion of whether to serve traditional foods in school cafeterias. Nope, what caught my eye was Paris Court of Appeal’s exhaustive “investigation” into the responsibility for a future autonomous automobile accident.

Set far in the future — 2041, in fact — after the national government had passed a law giving artificial intelligence legal status — une personnalité juridique — this futuristic tragedy imagines a driver — or at least, the person in what was once the driver’s seat — panicking over some black ice and pushing his car’s red “emergency” button. All manner of chaos ensues and, with cars banging about like bowling pins, the entire highway ends up looking like one of our current multi-car donnybrooks that do human drivers so proud. What makes this so poignant, however, is that France in 2041 has gotten used to a paltry dozen or so automotive deaths, down from the current 3,000 or so per year. Suddenly, it is faced with 50 fatalities and about 200 serious injuries. So, after the wreckage is cleared and the imaginary dead are buried, the normal finger pointing begins.

As this particular drama is packed with real legal beagles, it is serious and thoughtful affairs. In this case, the accused in the “box” are representatives of Eureka, an artificial intelligence giant specializing in autonomous automobiles. Allowed to present their case are bereaved citizens — “How could I entrust my children to machines?” — venting their frustration not just at a company, but a technology they were ensured would protect them. The prosecution applies pressure by citing the AI company’s “lack of reaction at the time of the pileup shows that it has stopped worrying about the safety of the users.” The defence, unsurprisingly, relies on the old we’re-all-to-blame-for-this protestation — “We have collectively caused this situation, it is the fault of nobody” — artfully presented by famed (and yes, real) French magistrate, Jean-Baptiste Crabières.

Oh, a few of the arguments are farcical (but then when are legal proceedings not farcical? — Ed.), the prosecution calling for “the death sentence for Eureka,” which is kind of difficult since it is a company (and a fictitious one at that). Crabières responds that “vehicle empowerment” has contributed to drastically reducing accidents over the past 10 years and a plea that “AI does not want to put people in danger, they do not want harm, they do not want to conquer the world.”

In the end, the jury — headed by Valery Turcey, the real president of the Paris Court of Appeal — ruled that artificial intelligence was guilty of vehicular manslaughter and sentenced AI to pay damages to the tune of two million bitoins. And, as prevention for future debacles, he also ordered all of artificial intelligence back to school — the exact words were “une rééducation algorithmique” — for enhanced simulator testing.

A little too Judge Judy, perhaps, for what is supposed to be a serious discourse by serious lawyers, but there were some profound arguments presented. As Motor Mouth has long predicted, the relative value of life — how does society value the life of a child versus that of the elderly — was a cause for much consternation during the proceedings. The French even have a name for it, “le dilemma du tramway,” which, judging from the vehemence of discussion in this Paris courtroom — faux as it may be — is something that quite concerns common folk everywhere. The public, also called upon to rule, cleared the “user” of the autonomous car who originally pulled the emergency button, citing that at the time the conditions warranted his reaction.

Now, so far, most of the proffered arguments might appear to be standard TV sensationalism, even if they were being voiced by real lawyers purporting serious discussion. But in her closing arguments, Catherine Champrenault, the real attorney general of the Paris court, succinctly voiced the fundamental problem that real courts will have in the future, namely “whether connected objects can generate offenses, and if the law as it stands today is sufficient.”

So, yes, the French are just a little different from you and I. But, you’ve got to admire a country riveted to such truly technocratic legal issues. That, again, aren’t real — yet.

And if you’re fluent in French, have a look at a promotional video of the proceedings below:

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