I went to a talk recently which dealt with the theme of fear and technology. During the talk, the speaker made one of those points which is so self-evident that it is almost banal, and yet also somehow reveals something that you’d never quite noticed before.

He was talking about the fact that just through the fact of its own existence, every new technology creates a new type of risk. Before boats, there was no risk of sinking; before computers, there were no computer viruses; before steam trains, no Montparnasse derailment.

As the idea of self-driving cars becomes more common-place, and their widespread introduction seems not only inevitable but imminent, we will have to accept that they will produce new risks. The trolley problem is something that is already being thought about:

There is a runaway trolley barreling 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 the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the most ethical choice?

The MIT Technology Review published an article on this subject with the slightly alarming headline “Why Self-Driving Cars Must Be Programmed To Kill” which considers how cars should behave in the event of an accident:

But it’s not just the human passengers or pedestrians who are potentially at risk. The cars themselves have an unexpected vulnerability that artist James Brindle has exploited:

As this interview with Brindle explains:

In a picture posted to Flickr by artist James Bridle—known for coining the term, “New Aesthetic”—a car is sitting in the middle of a parking lot has been surrounded by a magic salt circle. In the language of road markings, the dotted white lines on the outside say, “Come On In,” but the solid white line on the inside says, “Do Not Cross.” To the car’s built-in cameras, these are indomitable laws of magic: Petrificus Totalus for autonomous automobiles.

Arthur C. Clarke famously stated that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. This adage builds upon a statement from a story by the science fiction writer Leigh Brackett who said “Witchcraft to the ignorant, simple science to the learned.” Here, perhaps, we see magic and witchcraft getting revenge on technology. Often used in ritual magick, the simple salt circle is enough to defeat these autonomous vehicles. But how effective is salt for performing magick rituals? Not very, according to the Magick For The Real World blog:

it is horrible for a physical representation of the witch’s circle due to its natural affinity for loose energy.  It will pull the energy from the circle and hold it.  Unless you make sure to draw all of the energy out of the salt before your release, you will lose energy to the salt and will gain almost nothing from using it.

He ends his salt take-down with a simple plea:

And finally, please don’t keep salt near your altar unless you are using it as a battery and have a way to open it and close it from influencing any of your other workings because it will absolutely make your workings less effective.

I tend to keep my salt in the kitchen, so I think I should be fine but I’ll keep that in mind for future reference.