Hot Take: Uber Killed Someone, Who is to Blame?

Originally Published on Medium - March 23, 2018

An Uber self-driving car killed someone in Arizona. Who do we blame? Who goes to jail for manslaughter? Is it the person who was in the car, supposedly as its safety? Is it the Uber CEO, who allowed one of their machines to kill a civilian? Or is it the person who certified that the code was good enough for the road?

I don’t know the answer, but I think two groups need to work on getting it: the government and the engineering regulators.

To practice engineering in Canada, you need a license. With your license comes an engineering seal. It is this seal that binds you to your work, and makes you liability for what you put out into the public. This makes sense, engineers are responsible for bridges and buildings, for towers and reactors. And if something goes wrong, a lot of people can be hurt. But the engineering regulators have not made their way into the world of software, and that is a problem.

As more and more people talk about the importance of thoughtful design, of not manipulating people, there are many questions to be raised about the role of regulation in software. Mark Zuckerberg said it well, it is not a matter of should there be regulation, but what should the regulation be. If a person dies due to a bridge collapse in Canada, the engineer that signed off on that bridge design can be personally liable for that death. I believe that is the standard worth replicating as software more and more becomes an integral part of our physical world.

And on the point of government. Who in the government of Arizona is an autonomous vehicle expert. Who decides whether or not Uber’s algorithm is actually safe enough for the roads? Someone in the Arizona government said yes, but what was that decision based on? I don’t know the answers, and my guess is neither do they.

David Birnbaum