ECE 3400 Fall 2017

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The Autonomous Car

By: Ben Francis, Aasta Gandhi, Daniel Edens, David Yang, Erika Yu, and Shanee Lu


Ben Francis

The following story is about an autonomous car, known as BEN15, and its driver, Aasta, who face various scenarios in which the car/Aasta must make a tough decision and essentially give value to human life. The BEN15 and/or Aasta continuously find themselves in situations where they must make a split decision about what to do when encountering careless pedestrians in front of them in the road. Should they continue straight or swerve quickly to the side - either decision leading to the death of a pedestrian/pedestrians/the driver? The plot is based in the future where autonomous cars are not uncommon, and decisions like these must be made everyday.

Aasta, a programmer at Tasla Inc., has the ability to adjust the car’s code to change its thinking process when faced with these life or death situations. When altering the code of the BEN15 she must keep in mind what the customers want as well as what’s good for the wellbeing of her company, Tasla. She can change this code based on the three basic ethic tests: the utilitarian test, the justice test, and the virtue test. The utilitarian test asks the question of what action will produce the best outcomes for everyone affected. In other words, the BEN15 would make the decision that would cause the least amount of harm for everyone involved. The justice test looks at whether the action that is being taken is fair for everyone involved. If programmed to use this test, the BEN15 would take into account the quality and characteristics of the people that it could run over/kill, i.e. criminal vs. doctor. Last but not least, the virtue test takes into account whether the action that is being taken represents the kind of person that the person taking the action wants to be. In the case of the BEN15, its decision when faced with the pedestrian scenario would mirror the kind of person that Aasta would want other people to see her as.

Each of the difficult choices that Aasta and her car must make leads to constant conflict in her mind about what she wishes the BEN15 to do in future life or death scenarios. She not only has to take into account the economic, social, and political constraints that she is faced with, but she also has to consider the effect that these traumatizing events may have on her own psyche. Should she risk an older person’s life to save a young child’s? Is the life of a single person equal to that of a group of people? When writing code for her autonomous car, Aasta must take these questions, as well as many others, into account. Ultimately, there are no right or wrong answers to these questions; only ones that she must live with.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the authors’s imaginations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Chapter 1: The Damning Code

David Yang

Life at Tasla was hardly as romantic as it had seemed. The endless days; the sleepless nights; the turgid salesmen and screeching managers; the uninformed shareholders, spewing nonsense about profit margins; the engineers, with their crooked glasses and nervous grins, nervously trying to appease their demanding customers.

Aasta anxiously awaited the end of her shift, but time itself, in a fit of sadism, seemingly anticipated her eagerness and wished to prolong her suffering.

‘Just two hours,’ she realized, while squashing yet another bug in the code.

‘One and a half hours until the weekend,’ she thought, as she pushed more revised scripts to the cloud.

‘One hour left,’ she grinned, taking a sip from the lukewarm dregs staining the bottom of her mug.

She sat straighter, startled. She recognized the other engineer: Daniel Edens, a member of the ethics department. For the hundredth time, Aasta wondered why Tasla corp even needed an ethics department. It seemed to be a waste of money. There was no controversy in innovation. Every step was a step forwards, and there could seldom be anything wrong with progress.

“Hey, Aasta? I think you need to see this.”

Aasta smiled, trying to hide her annoyance. “Hey, Dan. What is it?”

“Statistics. I think these would be relevant to you. Look here.”

“Sales statistics, Dan. This isn’t my department. Go talk it up with marketing.”

“No, no, I– just look at the date.”

“… November 27th. That’s when we uploaded our most recent autonomous vehicle algorithm. How would a bunch of bugfixes correspond to – well, that’s actually quite a big dip in sales. Am I missing something?”

“Well, did you see the news?”

“Not recently,” Aasta admitted. She seldom had time to follow up on recent events, since her manager had been calling her group in for overtime at increasingly frequent intervals; any time spent watching the news could have been time spent sleeping, and Aasta needed every second of sleep she could get.

“I imagine you guys have way too much on your minds anyway. I’ll just sum it up for you. Everyone’s been buying the most recent BEN15 sedans, and that means there are more BEN15s out there getting hit by other drivers and, unfortunately, more BEN15s hitting other drivers.”

“Nothing’s perfect,” Aasta sighed. “Are you here to tell me that we should get our game together and fix the code so that nothing bad ever happens? Because we’re hard at work doing just that, trust me.”

“No, people don’t seem to mind about the driver to driver collisions. I understand that coding isn’t that easy. We both worked with Verilog in 3400. Remember?”

“I still get nightmares about it. How could I forget?”

“Hah. Anyway, accidents happen, and our PR department is doing a good job at explaining vehicle-to-vehicle collisions. The big media stink is over driver safety. Some enterprising hacker broke open the encryption– yes, I know, very extremely illegal– but he found that BEN15 source code prioritized saving the lives of the people it was going to hit over the driver. The way the article described it, if a BEN15 were about to hit some stranger crossing a bridge, and there was no way to stop in time, the car would rather drive off the side of a bridge to save the jaywalker.”

“It makes sense this way,” Aasta retaliated. “Removing the steering wheel and brakes gave us a lot of room to play with, so we stuffed some of the most advanced passenger safety systems out there into the BEN15s. Roll cages, layered airbags, buoyant alloys, you name it. If the BEN15 was really driving fast enough that it couldn’t slow down in time, the chance that someone inside our bridge-diving BEN15 surviving is higher than the chance of that jaywalker surviving getting smashed at such a high speed.”

Dan crossed his arms.

“That might be true, but it doesn’t change the fact that people don’t like buying a car which wouldn’t prioritize the driver’s safety over some stranger’s.”

“So they’d rather choose whether or not to drive off the bridge, and live with the guilt when they couldn’t choose in time? Our method saves lives.”

“Our method also costs us sales. Look, I don’t disagree with your utilitarian thought process, Aasta, but Kirstin is breathing down our necks, trying to squeeze out every nickel of profit. We’ve got to find a creative solution which benefits all parti–”

Bzzt! Bzzt!

Aasta palmed her phone, silencing the alarm.

“I get the concern. I’d want nothing more than to tell the Boss that it’s possible. But I don’t think any solution is right. Look, my shift is up and I have to go, but I’ll try to think about it some more. Have a nice weekend, Dan.”

Daniel opened his mouth, considering voicing protest, but, upon noticing the urgency with which Aasta had packed her belongings, he decided against it.

Daniel forced a smile. “See you.”

Aasta sighed in relief as she reclined in her BEN15’s driver seat… though, the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat looked identical. Perhaps, someday, the concept of driver’s seats and riding shotgun will go obsolete; yet more vestigial verbiage, to be trimmed from common speak. She crossed her legs and reached for the dog-eared book sitting on the dashboard.

“Go home,” she ordered.

“Acknowledged,” the BEN15 interface intoned. “Going home.”

Thirty minutes into the car ride, for no reason in particular, Aasta looked up from her novel.

The speedometer read sixty-five miles per hour. She saw five dots to her immediate right, and one dot on on her left. They appeared to be drifters, destitute and listless, squatting at the sides of the track.

Directly in front of her, a train blared and screeched as it thundered past. The BEN15 was slowing, but not quickly enough. Almost instinctively, she tried to seize the wheel– but, there was no wheel to be seized.

Time itself, in a fit of sadism, seemingly anticipated her fear and wished to prolong her suffering. As the train grew closer, as she tried to yell the override into the BEN15 interface, as she matched the incredulous gazes of the homeless men to her left and right, Aasta realized that her own code had damned her.

Aasta woke from her nightmare, screaming, her sheets drenched in sweat.

Chapter 2: 0x2B || !0x2B

Erika Yu

[Aasta gets ready to drive to work after the events of Chapter 1. As she reaches for the car door, she hesitates.]

AASTA: It was a dream, nothing more! I coded this car, there’s nothing to worry about. Thanks a lot Dan from Ethics…

[Dan suddenly appears in car]

DAN: You called?

AASTA: AH! How did you get in my car?

DAN: I wanted to talk to you about Ethics! There’s actually a lot you should be worrying about.

AASTA: What are you talking about?

DAN: Well autonomous cars are a real life application of a very complicated ethical dilemma called “The Trolley Problem.”

[Dan snaps his fingers and scene changes to road/parking lot.]

DAN: Let’s go back to basics. Say you’re in a car, with five people on one road and one person on the other.

[Dan gestures to point at groups as camera shows aforementioned parties.]

DAN: The car starts moving, and you can’t stop it.

[Dan reaches down and rips out the brakes.]

DAN: Now, which road do you go down?

AASTA: Are you crazy! D-did you just break my car?!

DAN: Yeah I did [nodding], which way do you go?

AASTA: That’s not my choice, it’s the car’s. BEN15, recalculate route!


AASTA: Uh… BEN15, recalculate route. [pause] RE-CAL-CU-LATE! [pause] Funny, it usually loves recalculating. Why isn’t it working? Did the system break?

DAN: No, this time the choice is yours. But it looks like we’ve run out of time.

[Car hits the group of five. Aasta wakes up.]

AASTA: Another dream? Ugh, it’s like 3 AM, I need to sleep.

[Aasta goes back to sleep. Scene skips to daylight as Aasta gets in car. She turns to the passenger seat and Dan is there again.]

DAN: Oh hey! Ready for more ethics?

AASTA: Wait wh-

[Dan snaps and scene switches again.]

DAN: This time I’ll give you warning before the car starts. But be ready this time, okay?

AASTA: No no no, not okay. I can’t just intentionally choose to kill someone! That’s murder! That’s not the person I am!

BEN15: Choice acknowledged. Recalculating.

AASTA: What?

[Car begins moving and proceeds to run over group of five people.]

AASTA: Oh my gosh! Why did it– I didn’t even say anything!

DAN: Sure, you did. You chose to not be a murderer.

AASTA: But the car just ran over 5 people!

DAN: Sure it did, it perfectly used the virtue test.

AASTA: How is killing five people virtuous in any way?

DAN: You said you didn’t want to willingly kill anyone, right? So BEN15 just didn’t do anything. But when you think about it isn’t not doing anything, inherently doing something in itself? The moral line between choice and inaction really adds a whole other dimension—


[Aasta wakes up again.]

AASTA: That’s it! Why does this stupid Trolley problem keep popping up in my head?! Sheesh… and now I’m exhausted, how am I supposed to get any sleep? You know what I’ll just not sleep again, yeah that’ll work.

[Alarm clock rings.]

AASTA: [Yawning] Oh great, time for work.

[Aasta gets in car and heads to work. Before she leaves, Dan runs up to the passenger window.]

DAN: Oh hey Aasta! My car battery died, can I catch a ride with you to work?

AASTA: Uh, sure….. (whispering) as long as I don’t get another Ethics lecture

[Dan gets in car.]

DAN: What was that?

AASTA: Nothing.

[Aasta starts driving, suddenly the road morphs into the parking lot.]

AASTA: What the…?

[A group of five people appear on road. And on the side road, one person.]

AASTA: Oh no, this is just like my dream.

DAN: Oh wow, it’s just like the Trolley problem. Uh.. Aasta, looks like we’re gonna crash into them…

AASTA: (aside, pensive) Aw I can’t do nothing again. You know what I’m an engineer, and if there’s one thing I know it’s math. 1 is less than 5!

AASTA: BEN15, change lanes.

BEN15: Acknowledged, recalculating.

[Car swerves to other road and crashes into single person. As crash occurs, Aasta thinks to herself.]

AASTA: I just hit this person, but I know this is the right choice. I’ll have to update Ben15’s priority code. We can’t just have every car sit and do nothing if there’s no completely safe alternative to a crash. We have to minimize the damage done, for the greater good.

DAN: (intruding voice over) and that’s called the Utilitarian Test.


[Alarm clock rings in background and Aasta wakes up again.]

AASTA: Aw c’mon, are you kidding me?!


Chapter 3: Conform to Demands

Daniel Edens

Aasta woke up again and pinched herself.

“Okay… good, I’m actually awake this time. What the heck happened? I must’ve experienced five nightmares last night… I feel like I didn’t get any sleep at all.”

Aasta got ready for work, approaching her Tasla and reaching for the car door, slowly creeping it open, cautiously looking for Dan to appear.

No Dan. What a relief.

“Okay,” Aasta reasoned. “I’m actually awake now, what did I expect? I just need to get through this day. It’s Friday, and a weekend of sleep is almost here.”

Aasta picked up a Coffee Traveler at Starbucks on the way to work. Arriving at the office, she hears a voice to her right.

“Oh wow, thanks, Aasta! Everyone, look! Aasta bought us all coffee!” said Erika, one of Aasta’s engineering coworkers.

“It’s actually all mine, there’s a Keurig in the break room for a reason,” Aasta replied sharply.

“Oh, sorry, I… okay I’ll use the Keurig.”

Erika slunk away from the room, dejected. Aasta triumphantly took a sip of her coffee, a smug grin on her face. That was one obstacle out of the way.

The hours flew by as Aasta coded. At around 2 hours left of work, she began to experience peculiar recollections.

‘I feel like I squashed this bug in the code before,’ Aasta thought to herself.

About an hour later, Dan from the ethics department appeared next to her cubicle.

“Hey!” Dan exclaimed. “I haven’t talked to you in awhile, I just wanted to discuss something. I think you need to see this.”

“Hey, Dan. What is it?” Aasta forced a grin. She was so close to the weekend, she could stomach just a bit more human interaction.

“Statistics,” Dan noted. “I think these would be relevant to you. Look here.”

“Oh yeah, you’re showing me the dip in sales of the BEN15s after the November 27th upload of our software. Some hacker nosed his way into my code and exposed our ethical decision making. Don’t people have better things to do?”

“Uh… Wow, yes you read my mind exactly, I was …”

“I already know what you’re going to say, and, hey, you know what? I’ll CHANGE my algorithm to CONFORM to society, ‘cause that’s what everyone seems to care about these days. We want more money, right? Let’s push logic aside and pander to the BEN15 owners and investors. Let’s hit pedestrians who have zero chance of survival instead of using the fully capable safety features of the BEN15 which give Tasla drivers a high chance of survival. I know Tasla’s quarterly report is due today, and that’s the main reason you’re here. I’ll change the code and upload it today.”

“Thanks a lot!” Dan replied, with a glowing smile. “I’m sure Kirstin will give you a raise! Have a great weekend!”

“Yeah, yeah, you too.” Aasta replied in a monotone voice.

Aasta spent the last hour of work changing the code that prioritized pedestrians over the driver. She made it so that this time, the algorithm weighed the value of each person to society.

‘This algorithm of saving people based on their expected contribution to society covers the ethical tests of utilitarian, virtue, and justice,’ thought Aasta. ‘In an ethical situation, the software will kill the least amount of potential worth to society, which is the best outcome for everyone. I don’t believe that choosing one person over the other solely based on expected financial contribution to society is right, so I incorporated selflessness and community service of each person into my algorithm to satisfy my virtues. It definitely matches the virtues of my company, to minimize damage to society while advertising the BEN15 as a vehicle that keeps the driver safe. Lastly, justice is served when the choice is between criminals and innocent people. I still think the previous method of sacrificing the car’s safety over any pedestrian was better, but this algorithm has a utilitarian, virtue, and justice mixture of my ethics, my company’s ethics, and society’s ethics.’

Aasta made the finishing touches to her code, then modeled it in the virtual reality simulator with a few ethical situations between animals and humans, criminals and innocent people, and mixtures of the above. Satisfied with the results, Aasta pushed the code to GitHub and released a firmware update to all BEN15 vehicles.

Aasta entered her BEN15 after work and waited for the firmware update to install. “Go home,” she ordered. BEN15 replied “Acknowledged. Going home.” On the way home Aasta couldn’t help but notice the news: a BEN15 vehicle had killed a duck instead of running over a wallet full of cash.

‘Oops, I’ll have to fix that bug on Monday,’ Aasta thought, turning off her phone. ‘Enough news. I need to relax.’

Aasta suddenly recalled the train incident about 29 minutes into her ride home. She was 100 yards from a train track; the situation was exactly as she remembered it.

“STOP” she yelled.

“Pulling over.” BEN15 replied.

Another BEN15 that was behind Aasta changed lanes quickly to avoid hitting Aasta and proceeded towards the tracks.

“Oh no..” Aasta said aloud. “They’re going to… oh NO!”

Aasta reached to honk the horn, but suddenly remembered that BEN15s don’t have horns.

“What do I do?”

A few hours later, Tasla made a news release on what had occurred with the BEN15 that got slammed by the train. Aasta read the news article nervously. It turns out the bums on the side of the road were actually scientists conducting an experiment on the air drag of trains. The driver was a good citizen, but the scientists happened to have higher scores on the ‘contribution to society’ scale.

The next morning, there were multiple news reports of other ethical incidents that occurred across the county. In particular, there was a situation where a BEN15 hit a deer instead of a human baby.

‘That’s good news at least,’ Aasta thought.

Another article highlighted an incident where a politician named David was hit instead of a Turkey. It later turned out that the politician had betrayed his own country and was making illegal deals with the mafia.

“Wow, I didn’t think BEN15 could detect that,” Aasta said to herself, incredulous.

Dan sent an email to Aasta thanking her for her hard work and mentioned that her raise would be in place by Wednesday.

Chapter 4: The Fruit Loop

Aasta Gandhi

“Where do you think we should go today?” Aasta asked wearily and really needing to relax after a week of nightmares.

“How about to the fruit loop?” Shanee responded excitedly. It was her favorite time of year – it was cold and rainy enough to be indoors, but temperate enough for a long drive and lots of pit stops.

“Ooo yeah, I’d really like some plums right now. But, the service there is pretty weak. Not sure how the BEN15 does in remote locations. It’s worth a try though; they told us that if we can’t get data, BEN15 just can’t keep updating and storing new information. Shouldn’t be a problem otherwise. I mean, I heard they fixed that issue a few months ago and updated all the cars out there too…” Aasta trailed off. Recently, she wasn’t sure about a lot of the validation and testing her group had been doing. On top of that Dan and his ethics minions had been on top of her with their “statistics.” She read the news, she hadn’t seen these “statistics” anywhere.

“Are you sure? Are you okay?” Shanee asked warily. She just wanted to get going. She knew about these concerns, but she also knew that she helped design the best and safest hardware for the car. She felt confident and safe with her work.

“Yeah, let’s hit the road. Go to An Apple Farm In The Fruit Loop.” commanded Aasta to her car.

“Acknowledged. Going to A Apple Farm In The Fruit Loop.” BEN15 cracked back.

“Do you want to play a game on the way there?” asked Shanee.

“Let’s do it…” replied Aasta, still seeming lost as she swiveled her seat to face Shanee.

As the day grew brighter and the more canyons they sped through, the journey became hazier. They were too busy playing to know when they’d get there. They waited for BEN15 to lurch to a stop.

“40 minutes to your destination” crackled BEN15 again.

“What is the weather outside, BEN15?” asked Aasta.

“I am sorry. That information cannot be retrieved right now. I will try again later.” cracked BEN15 again.

“Hm, that’s weird. That doesn’t usually happen. What are the headlines today, BEN15?” probed Aasta.

“I am sorry. I cannot retrieve the headlines right now. I will try again later.” said BEN15 once again.

“Must be the weird connection issue? I only have 1 bar too right now, but this place looks familiar. We should be okay.” reassured Shanee.

Aasta turned back, panicking on the inside, to the non-existent steering wheel. Why did they decide to take out the wheel again? She checked the speed limit. 70 miles per hour. The road was getting curvier and narrower, but the drive was still smooth. She kept her eyes stuck on the road.

“Sooo are we not playing anymore?” asked Shanee annoyed. She really just wanted to relax before going back to work tomorrow. Work was truly a nightmare these days.

“Wait, there’re so many elk on the road today. Decrease speed limit, BEN15.” said Aasta.

“Decreased speed limit to 65 miles per hour. There is no visible danger on the road, and we are currently travelling within the speed limit.” responded BEN15.

“This is dangerous. What if they decide to cross the road suddenly. Decrease the speed limit, BEN15.” rushed Aasta again.

“Decreased speed limit to 64. There is no visible danger on the road, and we are currently travelling within the speed limit. This speed is optimized for safe and fast travel.” responded BEN15 again.

Aasta began to frantically push buttons; trying to manually decrease the speed limit. As she decreased it, BEN15 automatically adjusted back, still going at 64 miles per hour. Then, Aasta saw it. Two elks – a rather large and rather small one - stepping by the road. They looked ready to cross, or ready to be pummeled by BEN15. She was frightened. She was yelling at Shanee to try to keep adjusting the speed. The elk were still far, but they were there. The car wasn’t stopping.

She yelled, “STOP THE CAR NOW, BEN15.”

“Please wait for the nearest side-lane or exit. It is dangerous to stop in the middle of the road.” responded BEN15, calm as ever, and adjusting back to a faster speed limit. It was almost like it was fighting back.




“I am sorry. I do not understand. We will arrive At a Farm In The Fruit Loop in 10 minutes.” responded BEN15.

Shanee was freaking out at this point. She was trying to adjust the speed limit and lower it to zero. She quickly grabbed her computer from the back, and began trying to remote control the car.

“NO, WE CAN’T JUST HIT THOSE PEOPLE. THEY’D DIE. WHY ISN’T BEN15 DETECTING THE ANIMALS OR THE PEOPLE. STOP THE CAR, BEN15.” Aasta kept screaming. She was scared and didn’t know what to do. These were the dreams she had been having for the past week. This was reality. She could just run through the elk. She and Shanee would be okay; the car is equipped to save their life. But, that would mean mass murdering how many ever elk would cross at the moment of impact. They were approaching the animals. Getting closer. BEN15 wasn’t turning at Shanee’s commands, but it would kill two whole humans if it did. They weren’t paying attention to the car; they had no idea; no one had control.

Was it their duty to save the elk or the people? Would they still be good people if they killed one or the other? Is it even their fault? Shouldn’t BEN15 be making this decision for them?

“A danger on the road has been detected. Please prepare for potential impact.” BEN15 commented. They could feel the car slowing down as they approached the elk.

“An object on the road possesses danger. A potential impact might occur, and airbags and masks might be released. Please prepare for impact.” BEN15 crackled again.

“TURN THE CAR RIGHT, BEN” yelled Shanee.








“Prepare for impact in 5….4….3….”


“Turning Car right….”

Aasta woke up suddenly. Jumped out of bed. Just another dream.


Shanee Lu

This story follows the ethical dilemmas that Aasta must face regarding the popular autonomous car, BEN15. In each of the three different situations, the decision to choose certain lives over others causes major controversy. In the end, Aasta is conflicted and constantly haunted by the consequences of her decisions because all options are subjective, seen as ethical to some and unethical to others.

In her first dream, Aasta’s original code is implemented and BEN15 is instructed to make the decision that causes the least amount of harm for those involved. BEN15 uses the utilitarian test because the pedestrians are guaranteed to be saved, while the driver has the potential for survival. If BEN15 is not implemented this way, the driver is guaranteed survival but the pedestrians do not stand a chance.

In the second scenario, Aasta decides that she does not want to be responsible for making a decision, so she allows BEN15 to continue in its original direction. While she does not want the responsibility of making a decision, in the end she realizes that allowing the car to continue its path is equivalent to choosing those victims’ fate. She decides that this “inaction” is not representative of her character or virtues, so she puts matters into her hands and applies the utilitarian test, choosing to save five people over one.

In the third scenario, Aasta relents to Dan with his financial reports and implements code that society believes is fair. She has BEN15 use the justice test to take into account the quality and characteristics of the victims. In this case, animals and criminals have low priority, while scientists and those with greater economic contribution (such as a wallet) are prioritized. While BEN15’s decision-making faces a couple of bugs and flaws, such as running over a duck instead of a wallet, the majority of society approves of this choice, since it is viewed as most “fair.” Its evaluation of who deserves to live is based on economic, social, and political contribution and background. As a result, Tasla sees an increase in sales.

In the fourth scenario, Aasta experiences a scary situation in which she is unable to execute a decision based on her own virtues. BEN15 ignores any commands until it finally executes Shanee’s command, to which Aasta is very against and has no time left to reverse. During this nightmare, Aasta uses the virtue test and considers whether the executed action represents the kind of person she wants to be.

In the near future, real-life autonomous cars may not be uncommon, and scenarios like these will be experienced everyday. Companies such as Uber and Google will need to make executive decisions on how their cars behave in potentially fatal accidents. Those decisions could be made based on of sales and public approval, as seen by Dan’s job, or they could involve prioritizing lives of certain people. Each decision can reveal a lot about what is widely regarded as “ethical.” Whether we value statistically beneficial outcomes, economic contribution, or individual decision, there is no right or wrong decision. Ethics can be a subjective matter and with the choices we make, we must be willing to accept the expected consequences.