02023-06-05 | Computer, Funny, Reading | 4 comments

This is a warning. Please read carefully.

By now you’ve probably seen a Predictor; millions of them have been sold by the time you’re reading this. For those who haven’t seen one, it’s a small device, like a remote for opening your car door. Its only features are a button and a big green LED. The light flashes if you press the button. Specifically, the light flashes one second before you press the button.

What’s expected of us | Nature

Short story by Ted Chiang, published by in 2005, nearly twenty years ago. 

Thinking about free will is like thinking about afterlife or whether we have a soul. Could be an interesting debate but how useful is it? 

I imagine, if given enough information, AI could figure out my answer to most questions, most of the time. It would seem like magic.

I like the name Chiang would prefer to use instead of AI, which he terms a poor choice of words from the 1950’s: Applied Statistics. John Gruber suggested, and then retracted, adding the term System, for a better acronym.


  1. Steve

    >The immediate problem is that Predictors demonstrate that there’s no such thing as free will.

    The problem of course is that the term “free” and the term “will” are both pretty “hand wavy” and ill-defined.

    My assumption is that for finite intellects, “freedom” involves a deliberative ability to choose among different courses of action. This seems self-evidently obvious, and a good compressed way of describing the “hand wavy” aspect of the terms.

    Bu also, there must be a “why” in any “free choice” … a sufficient reason for making it:

    You prove this every time you choose a salad at lunch rather than a bowl of dirt lightly mixed with water.

    The (hard) determinist will claim, no doubt, that given the actual past, and the actual laws of nature, there is only one possible future. This is the view of well-known people like Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, et. al.

    For the sake of argument, assume (hard) determinism as described above. Surely “free will” is “an illusion.” Further, stipulate that “free” and “will” have been satisfactorily defined on this view.

    Clearly, the word “illusion” in this context is not being used in an ordinary way. Ordinary illusions can be seen through and overcome. For example, suppose while walking at twilight I jump back from a tree root I mistake as a snake in the low light. It was, in fact “an illusion.” A misperception on my part. From then on, I will not “be fooled” by this “illusion.”

    Misperceptions can be corrected. Something similar is true of other illusions such as those of romantic love. In cases like these, further perception, more careful thinking, keener observation, life experience, “due diligence” and the like lead to the supplanting of the illusory with truth.

    But if free will is “an illusion”, it is not an illusion that can be corrected, no matter what I do. The (hard) determinist might well argue:

    “… free-will is a **special** sort of illusion … one that cannot be seen through and corrected.”

    My challenge to a person who makes this move will be: “Explain how living under this illusion differs from the actual reality of being a free agent.”

    At the end of the day, I am reminded of a quote by J.P. Sartre, who says something to the effect that “freedom is what we do with what has been done to us.”

    • ottmar

      The next time you confidently walk past the tree root shadow, determined not to be fooled again, it might in fact be a snake and bite you.

      I like that Sartre quote.

      • Steve

        Probably true, which raises at least one kind of epistemological question…

        Like, “Given that we function under epistemic opacity, and cannot possibly know a priori if the branch is an illusion or a snake, what is the appropriate approach …”

        My advice: go a different way ;^)

        (which also seems to support free will … lol )

        • ottmar

          Or use the phone’s flashlight function. :-)


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