Kurt Vonnegut, Free Will, Predestination, and Big Data

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Teradata Employee

Kurt Vonnegut wrote in Slaughterhouse Five:  “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom always to tell the difference.” 

Are we in control of our own actions and thoughts?  Philosophers have debated the existence of free will for centuries.  Modern day psychology and technology have attempted to comprehend the dichotomy of free will versus predetermination.  Seth Schwartz challenges us to consider this notion in his Psychology Today article “Do We Have Free Will?  I want to believe that I am in charge of my decisions as I travel through life, but more and more I have doubts.  I ask myself “Are we able to control our future any more than we can control our past?”  I want to believe in both free will and predetermination.  There are situations that are very much in our control and of course there are things that are not.  Throw in that our advances in deep learning and augmented reality are going to improve significantly.  Will we give up even more control over our destiny to what I call ‘Technology Nannies.”  I think we will!  We have already allowed modern day conveniences interrupt our free will.  A TV commercial informs you of a new movie release and you have to go see it.  Your GPS tells you to exit 43b on I-280 in San Fransisco as you drive to the theater to see that movie.  The machines are already in charge and as the technology advances your free will is at risk. In this article we will review some concepts that may completely disrupt the dichotomy of free will and predetermination; both are now up for interruption by ‘Technology Nannies.’

Don’t think this is possible?  You already give up your geographic location, who you are with physically, with whom you communicate, and your personal interests via your smart phone.  It is perceived as passive but believe me it is a very active influencer in your behavior.  Tomorrows Siri will not be passive but active in our lives, it will call us, and it will attempt to disrupt your free will or predetermined path.  One day you will not know how you lived without it.  Here are some examples.

CRIME AND PUNISHMENT.  The right to due process is absolute in our country however the costs of locking up non violent offenders is staggering.  In the future there may not be a need for  so many jails and prisons.  Of course our most violent offenders will be locked away; however our non serious offenders may be given a punishment of a 24/7 parole officer.  It is the ultimate Santa Claus “so be good for goodness sake.”  It is a machine that is present in the offenders life for a given criminal sentence.  It will have access to a persons biometrics, blood chemistry, location, and will also know who you are interacting with electronically and in person.  Tomorrows Parole officer will be an electronic nanny that will detail a convicts every move and know when to interrupt based on predictive intelligence.  It will attempt to interrupt you directly and could call in the authorities.  This offers our society a much more civil approach to dealing with crime and punishment.

HEALTHCARE.  Tomorrows healthcare providers, pharmaceutical companies, and medical equipment manufacturers will create data driven products that will act as 24/7 care teams for patients.  Your doctor will prescribe a virtual doctor to watch over your vitals and other behaviors.  Your phone will ring and a soothing voice will inform you to go home and relax as it monitors your heart rate and blood pressure.  All the while your biometric analysis is being performed and provided to your healthcare team.  Your personal healthcare Nanny will remind you of your doctor appointments and if you have taken your medication.  I have written other articles that demonstrate this vision:  Why Machine Learning is the Next Penicillin.  This service could extend human lifespan by 15 years but only if we allow the machine to interrupt our free will.

PSYCHOLOGY.  Electronic Nannies will one day help us cope, deal with anxiety and depression, assist with our addictions, and help us deal with loss.  Your electronic nanny could talk you out of that piece of cake or sooth a bad day.  One idea I have is to develop a machine to assist in the loss of a loved one.  My father and mother have been gone now for about five years.  Wouldn't it be amazing if I could call my father from time to time just to ask for advice or direction on a big decision or just to say hello. Could we build a machine to help us cope with loss for our loved ones?  I think we can. We could build a machine that could learn your habits, your voice tones, and your emotional responses.  When your time on this amazing planet comes to an end your friends and family could say goodbye.  We could sooth the enormous and instant variance of death by allowing us to cope together through a machine. 

ADDICTED TO THE MACHINE.  Will we fall in love with our electronic nannies? Will they become an addiction?  I think it is possible.  If I took your smart phone and GPS away from you right this second your life would be thrown a curve.  You are probably already addicted to a machine.  If we have free will we will be in control of our electronic nannies and have the power to turn them off.   There will also have to be some guidelines and governance that does not allow the machine to make actual decisions for us.   Humans must be in control.  For example, your doctor will make the final diagnosis and not your electronic doctor.  Humans will be in control even though some think we are predestined in our paths.   It is time for the machines to help us deal with our problems and assist in our daily lives.  It is time to accept that the machine might be a part of who you are, a symbiosis. 

DON’T LOSE HOPE:  Does all of this terrify you?  The world we are about to enter in the next ten to twenty years is going to be incredible.  Machines will seamlessly be a part of our lives.  I don't know if us humans are predestined or if we have free will. Regardless, I believe we are heading into a future where machines will interrupt us in amazing and healthy ways.  In the end it is no reason to despair.  Sam Harris the author of Free Will states - “Losing a belief in free will has not made me fatalistic—in fact, it has increased my feelings of freedom. My hopes, fears, and neuroses seem less personal and indelible…”    Bring the machines!