A Master-Class in Survey Design: MIT’s Self-Driving Car Survey

The future is coming. The consumer space-flight is possible within our life-times. And the self-driving car is fast approaching. No! Really!! It’s brakes are out!!!

Or at least that’s the situation that MIT wants your input on. They recently posted a survey on the topic. They want to know what decision a self-driving car should make if that kind of thing happens.  Don’t worry it’s nice and short, so feel free to take it and come back. You can find the survey here.

For an amateur student of philosophy, it was an enjoyable exercise. MIT presents a variety of scenarios wherein only a subset of the group can be saved. In fact is a new face on a classic problem.

The original formulation, to the best of my knowledge, is called the Trolley Problem. In short, a trolley or train is on a track before a switch. You are next to the lever that changes which track the train will proceed down. But no matter which track you choose someone will die. Variations occur on how many people you can save. Some variations even change the type of people. But  all are there to bring you face-to-face with your personal ethical values.

Stepping back to the approachable, MIT has posed this question in a way which is easier to approach. I commend them for it! By now you have already taken their survey, and should recognize the snap shot below. If you haven’t taken the survey yet, you can take it here.

You will notice that MIT has presented the problem in visual terms. In the first place this allows the information to be processed more readily by more people. Which is great, especially for a survey where statistical significance is important! The more people who can take your survey the better.

Going back to the presentation, I will remark on the clever visual language that MIT has employed. They describe gender, health, social standing with understandable patterns. They can even express a persons habits (to a limited degree) with these patterns! Moreover, it is clear what the choice is. Those affected marked by icons. And the choice of the vehicle is also made clear, in a simple representation. Having taken the time to review it more , I  am impressed! Well done, MIT.

Moving to their results page, I must again praise their work. The visual style is consistent with the rest of the survey, as well as informative. They also show you where your preference is, relative to other takers. This provides easy to understand information, without complicating the graphs!

As one might expect, the results may not map one-to-one with your ethical beliefs. Of course, such a short survey cannot capture the full breadth of a persons beliefs. Several scenarios mix several criteria together. As a result some of the data may appear to show an incorrect conclusion. This has more to do with the limited set provided to the taker.

Despite this minor short-coming, the MIT survey has some solid scenarios! On the whole, they do a good job teasing our the taker’s preferences. To remove the last vestiges of misleading data, I think MIT would need at most 5 more scenarios. But they have done a great job as is, while keeping the survey to a manageable length.


Title image is public domain, found here.


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