Despite many advances in the relevant technologies over the past decade, it turns out that driverless cars are a lot further away than we may imagine. Yes, Google will be testing their self-driving vehicle this summer on the roads around Silicon Valley, and yes, Uber have recently decimated the Robotics Department of Carnegie-Mellon by sweeping away their brightest researchers, but what you don’t read about too often is that developers at the forefront of the technology have hit an unforeseen problem: they have to encode their machines with a way to judge the value of life. I am not being abstract, I mean literally that driverless cars must actually be able to weigh the value of one life against another, and make decisions based on this, in real time. The most straightforward example I can give you is the case of a driverless car containing a single passenger that is about to hit a (n also driverless) schoolbus full of children. The car of the single passenger, ie his/her personal property, would have to make the decision to protect the many over the life of its single owner, and possibly swerve that car over a cliff, or any other alternative action to save the most lives. Therefore if you have a driverless car, there will be certain situations where it will decide that the logical decision is to kill you.
As I said, this fact has many of the best minds in robotics technology absolutely baffled, so much so that companies like BMW and Mercedez Benz have actually hired philosophers and ethicists as permanent staff members of their driverless car projects. How to weigh a life is one of the most important questions in this next phase of technological advancement, and is one that we will see again and again as this century progresses. I can imagine a time not so far away when robotics engineers are convicted of murder for a glitch in a shoddy ethics algorithm. Weighing intangible assets against each other is new territory in quantitative analysis, however the ethicists and roboticists at these research departments could simply look to Europe for answers, and reason quite clearly that the best solution is simply to drive the weakest individual off the cliff, at any cost.
The case of Greece and the Eurozone is an important moment in the history of democracy in that what is actually happening right now is a weighing of the value of one democracy versus the value of another democracy. The Eurozone is a democratic institution, comprising of elected finance ministers and heads of state from all its member nations. Within that democratic institution is Greece, a sovereign democratic nation in itself that is being forced to do things it doesn’t want to do, by the more powerful democracy, to the detriment of itself and its people. The sovereignty of Greece is irrelevant (and questionable) in the situation, it is more important that the views of the majority in the higher democracy are served, whatever the cost to the smaller nation. Such an event has never happened in history between a sovereign nation and another actor, in any political system, except from times of war. I want to state clearly here that I don’t feel very sorry for Greece, or feel that the actions of the Eurozone are justified. The two are different sides of the same coin, a problem that Europe has tried to ignore for almost 20 years: monetary union is absolutely unsustainable without further fiscal, political, and ultimately total, union.
The Euro, while long a dream in Brussels circles since the 1970s, was a product of the post-Cold War era of the mid-1990s, a time where anything was possible and the belief that the objective power of capitalist market dynamics was enough to stabilise the financial system. I had just started studying economics in high school in the mid-90s and was taught that the watermark for a safe financial system was an independent central bank and the limiting of government intervention in this financial system. This was trumpeted mostly by Alan Greenspan, a man who probably should not be allowed to walk down the streets unmolested by abuse. This, a booming worldwide economy, and the prototype successful reunion of West and East Germany was enough to convince decision makers in the European Union that the time was ripe for further union. And what better union to make than monetary union, based in the financial system, which was a completely objective and self-correcting entity that would basically take care of itself? The Eurozone was thus conceived as a harmless, subjective almost robotic entity that ran itself automatically, and had the steely gaze of the independent European Central Bank to make decisions should something go wrong. In effect, Eurozone members traded in their monetary sovereignty for the chances of deeper trade ties with their major European trading partners, and would save millions on transaction costs (exchange rates etc) while pooling their financial might to create one of the strongest currencies in the world. It was going reasonably OK until 2008.
You can really tell who your friends are during a crisis, and the House of Europe was not a happy one towards the end of the first decade this century. Suddenly there was a witch hunt going on in European media about the frugal, sensible Northern Europeans versus the lazy, tax-dodging Mediterraneans (and Ireland, a little bit). In truth, if everyone acted like the Germans claim to do, and save every penny while treasuring security above all, there would not be so much economic activity in that country. Yet it was fine, because the media and politicians who could say this sort of thing about Greece, Portugal and Ireland were completely unaccountable to the electorate of those countries. The important thing however was that those politicians could influence the monetary policy and bailout conditions on those countries due to their status as Eurozone members. The Eurozone, in a time of financial crises, was plucked from the realms of supposedly objective invisible-handed guidance, and plunged into the centuries old bickering of European petty politics.
It’s not that the Eurozone was a bad idea, or that it can’t work, it’s that it was never going to be enough by itself to ensure a stable monetary union. States gave away sovereignty, a possession long thought indivisible, and this has been proven right. By reneging on their monetary sovereignty, the only option was to further ties with other members of the union, ultimately leading to a Eurozone Confederacy. Only by coordinating monetary, fiscal and financial policy can a system such as the Eurozone ever work, balancing the growth of its richest members with the protection of and investment in its weakest members. West Germany reintegrated with East Germany knowing that it was an economic risk to take on such an economically backward region, and entered the Eurozone knowing that countries like Greece and Portugal would take generations to reach the same level. Within a country, you would call this the core-periphery model, where a high-growth region ultimately has to fund a weaker region that has nothing going on, with the hope that key investments will help the two converge economically. This is usually done through investment in infrastructure and education in the peripheral region, and rarely through tax extraction and austerity as has been seen in Eurozone bailout countries.
The Eurozone is flawed because it is programmed to throw our peripheral regions off the cliff, at any cost, and the real reason for that is because no one in any position of power really has to care about any other country’s wellbeing but his/her own, and this is fine as long as it goes along with the majority decision of the other members. A real union, of any kind, would probably require some kind of inbuilt morality to guide the final decision, something that in this transitory period where we can’t quite seem to let go of nationalism just yet, means that we would need to belong to the same political union.