The Rise of 'Killer' Software

Dennis Faas's picture

We all know that many modern medical tools rely on sophisticated software to perform their magic in life-saving and life-threatening situations. However, it's now software that's being asked to decide, quite literally, whether someone lives or dies.

Sound like a science-fiction fantasy? Maybe something from Huxley's 'Brave New World' or a Vonnegutt novel? It may have started that way, but with increased frequency, computer programs are being asked to make life or death decisions because of their intrinsic impartiality.

Example 1: As far back as 2006, software, designed by a Beijing hi-tech firm, was being used in China's eastern Shandong province to decide the appropriate sentence for criminals being tried for offences punishable by death. The goal of the software? To ensure that the law is applied uniformly and not manipulated by corrupt judges. (Source:

Example 2: In March of 2007, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a software program that would decide when to "pull the plug" on seriously ill patients. NIH claimed the decisions of the software were more accurate and reliable than those of the patient's close friends or relatives. The program was developed to act as a "surrogate", or someone that makes the life-or-death decision if a family member is not available. (Source:

Now, in March of 2008, NIH is anticipating its application. David Wendler, head of the Department of Bioethics at NIH is hoping this software will help when critically-ill patients fail to sign a living will directive.

For those of us that live and work in the technology arena, this new dimension of technology ethics is frightening. Would you, for example, be willing to trust a software program to make a life or death decision for one of your loved ones? What if the software were developed by an insurance company? And what if the latest update wasn't installed?

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