Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Value of Human Life

File this under jobs I don't ever want to have: calculating the value of human life.  However, many governmental agencies are doing just this, and a report out today in the NY Times illustrated some of the values of human life set by various agencies.  Unfortunately it comes as little surprise to me that certain businesses are fighting higher valuations of human life because it affects their bottom line.  The value of human life is important in cost-benefit analysis when coming up with various regulations. 

Here's an example from the article:
"The Bush administration rejected a plan in 2005 to make car companies double the roof strength of new vehicles, which it estimated might prevent 135 deaths in rollover accidents each year. At the time, Transportation officials figured that the cost of the roofs would exceed the value of lives saved by almost $800 million. So the agency proposed a smaller increase in roof strength that might save 44 lives a year.
Last year, the Obama administration imposed the stricter and more expensive roof-strength standard, and it published a new set of calculations showing that the benefits outstripped the costs. Most of the difference came from the increased value of human life. By raising that number to $6.1 million from a figure of $3.5 million in the original study, the Obama administration rendered those 135 lives — and hundreds of averted injuries — more valuable than the roofs."

It kind of makes you feel icky, doesn't it?  I was first introduced to this aspect of cost-benefits analysis when I went to work for the State Public Interest Research Groups and heard Lois Gibbs' story.  Lois Gibbs was the housewife whose children got sick.  Very sick.  Then she found out that their neighborhood had been built on top of 20,000 tons of toxic waste.  She thought that if only she could prove the link between the health problems and the toxic waste, the company would pay for cleanup.  Then she discovered a cost-benefits analysis in which the company determined the cost of cleanup didn't outweigh the value of human life that was affected.  Her husband earned $10,000 a year, so his life was valued at $10,000.  Since her son was likely to follow in his father's footsteps, his life was valued at $10,000 plus inflation.  Lois was a housewife with no income, and so her life's value was nothing.  And since her young daughter was likely to follow in her footsteps, her life was also worth nothing.

I suppose we've come a long way from there.  In the same edition of the NY Times was an article about Watson, the super-computer built by IBM that beat Jeopardy!'s two most winning contestants.  It wasn't even close.  One question raised by the Watson factor is whether such machines will be able to replace humans, at least in certain capacities.  So I wondered what the value of humanoid computer "life" would be.  It took a team of top computer scientists a few years to develop Watson, and though IBM won't say how much they spent on the project, estimates range from $100 million to $2 billion.  I'm not saying it was too much.  In fact, perhaps the technology can be used in ways that save lives in the future.  If Watson-type computers can help diagnose sickness or disease more quickly and accurately, wouldn't that make Watson at least worth it's weight in gold?  I guess that would all depend on how you value a human life.

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