How many boy scouts?

Sometimes we find ourselves working on stuff that is less than scintillating, maybe discussing the implementation details of yet another pointless cookie notification bar or whether it would be a bad thing to implement one of those things that highlights random words on your site like “gambling” and pops up ads if you accidentally mouse over them [yes! – Ed.]; at such times it’s sometimes tempting to dream you were instead working in Silicon Valley on some ground-breaking project like self-driving cars.

I have an antidote for that though; suppose you really were working on the software that guides a self-driving car. That would be awesome, right? Even the worst implementation of an AI-controlled vehicle is soon likely to be many times safer for the passengers and the world at large than even the best human driver, and there are really smart people working on the problems right now.

I’ve been reading this amazing essay from Paul Ford, “What is Code?”, and in it he explains why if those rockstar ninja developers exist, they’re probably going to have pretty high standards as to what problems they work on and are therefore probably not going to be sitting in the next cubicle in a typical dev team.

They’re not interviewing at your crappy company for your crappy job. They’re not going to come and rescue your website; they’re not going to make you an app that puts mustaches on photos; they’re not going to listen to you when you offer them the chance to build the next Facebook, because, if they exist, they are busy building the real Facebook.

Very astute, right? But it was this next sentence that made me glad I’m not one of them.

Sometimes they’re thinking about higher mathematics, or how to help a self-driving car manage the ethical choice between running over a squirrel and driving off a cliff. Or they’re riding their bikes, or getting really into pottery.

If you’re the one designing the anti-collision software, you’re the one who has to tell it how to decide in emergency situations. So the squirrel case is pretty easy (once you train it to reliably differentiate between a child in a furry hat and a squirrel, but that’s another matter) – bye bye Mr Squeaks, right?

But how would you suggest to your automaton that it handle the sort of situation that psychologists use to bother otherwise happy people; like, assuming that its brakes have failed and it’s hurtling down a hill, able to steer but not stop, and it has to choose the lesser of two evils.

Do you suggest it should stay on the road and aim, for instance, at the mother and a child in a pushchair on the pedestrian crossing (two people with their lives ahead of them), or steer into the bus queue of twenty older people instead?

But what if there are boy scouts in the bus queue too?

If you’re a rockstar programmer and your next question is, “how many boy scouts?” there may be a job for you in Mountain View. Tell them I suggested you give them a call.

Now, what colour would you like your cookie notification bar, Mr Smithers?