Can we debate free will versus destiny in four pages?
The informal TechCrunch book club (which is now a whole week off schedule thanks to the news cycle — let’s see if we can catch up here shortly!) is now venturing into the very, very short story What’s Expected of Us, the third piece in Ted Chiang’s Exhalation collection. If you’re one of those people that fall behind in book clubs, don’t fret: you’ve had two weeks to read four pages. You can probably read the short story before finishing this post.
If you haven’t already, be sure to check out the previous editions of this book club which explores the first two (larger) short stories in the collection, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, a beautiful story exploring predestination and fate, and Exhalation, a vital yet subtle story about climate change, the connections between people and society, and so, so much more.
Next, we will read the lengthier story The Lifecycle of Software Objects — some reading questions are posted at the bottom of this article.
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What’s Expected of Us
We are only three stories into Exhalation, but already there are threads that are starting to connect these disparate stories, none more important than the meaning of fate in lives increasingly filled with technological determinism.
Chiang loves to presuppose these novel technologies that prove that our fates are fixed. In The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, he imagines these teleporting gates that allows users to move forward and backwards in time, while in this story, it is the Predictor that sends a light signal back in time by one second after the button is clicked, forcing the device’s user to confront the fact that the future is already predetermined when the light burns bright.
While these two stories have certain symmetries, what’s interesting to me is how different their conclusions are from each other. In The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, Chiang notes that while our destinies may be fixed, and even if we had a time machine, we couldn’t change the past to affect our futures, he essentially argues that the journey itself is often its own reward. The past may indeed be immutable, but our understanding of the past is in fact quite malleable, and learning the context of our previous actions and those of others is in many ways the whole point of existence.
In What’s Expected of Us though, the Predictor creates a dystopic world where lethargy among people runs supreme. Here’s a simple device that transmits a basic signal across a short period of time, but provides overwhelming evidence that free will is essentially a myth. For many, that’s enough for at least some people to become catatonic and just stop eating entirely.
Our occasional fiction review contributor on Extra Crunch Eliot Peper wrote in with his favorite passage and a thought, which gets at one of Chiang’s solutions:
“Pretend that you have free will. It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know they don’t. The reality isn’t important; what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma. Civilization now depends on self-deception. Perhaps it always has.”
As science reveals a clockwork determinism behind reality’s veil, it becomes ever more important for us to believe the opposite in order to build a better future. A belief in free will is enfranchising. It is the spark of hope that inspires us to push back against the invisible systems that shape our lives — creating a chance for change.
Peper gets at the core message of this story, but frankly, self-deception isn’t easy (as any less-than-perfectly-confident startup founder who has attempted to persuade investors about their product can tell you). It’s one thing to say “pretend it all doesn’t matter,” but of course it does matter, and you intrinsically acknowledge and comprehend the deception. It’s like that self-help dreck about setting artificial deadlines to get stuff done — yet their very artificiality is precisely why they are ineffective. As Chiang writes about the Predictor, “The person may appear to lose interest in it, but no one can forget what it means; over the following weeks, the implications of an immutable future sink in.” Fate locks into our very souls.
Chiang notes though that people respond differently to this realization. Some become catatonic, but it is implied in the story that others find a different path. Of course, those paths are all laid out before the Predictor even arrived — no one can choose their destiny, even about how they will confront the knowledge of fate and destiny itself.
Yet, even without that choice, we must move on. Structurally, the story (similar again to The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate) is told retrospectively, with a future agent sending a note back in time warning about the consequences of the Predictor. Rhetorically asking whether anything would change by this note, the future agent says no, but then says that “Why did I do it? Because I had no choice.”
In other words, maybe everything is indeed predetermined. Maybe everything in our lives can’t be changed. And yet, we are still going to move forward in time, and we are still going to take the actions we are predetermined to make. Maybe that requires self-deception to muddle through it. Or maybe, we just need to vigorously commit to the actions in front of us — regardless of whether we had the ability to choose them in the first place.
The Lifecycle of Software Objects
The next short story in the collection is a bit more sprawling, touching on a huge numbers of topics around virtual worlds, the entities we raise in them, and what that means for us as humans. Here are some questions to think about as you read the story:
- What’s it mean to love something? We understand love in the context of (human) children, but can you love an AI? Can you love an inanimate object like a statue? Is there a line when our ability to love stops?
- What makes an entity sentient? Does it take experience delivered from others, or can sentience be constructed out of thin air?
- Chiang sometimes fast-forwards time in a variety of different circumstances: hothouses to accelerate AI learning, and for the human characters themselves in the plot. What is the meaning of time in the context of the story? How do the concepts of time and experience interact?
- The author touches on but doesn’t deeply explore the legal questions around “human rights” in the context of sentient AI beings. How should we think about what rights these entities have? Which characters’ views best represented your own?
- How can we define concepts like consciousness, sentience, and independence? What elements of the story seem to indicate where Chiang defines the boundaries between those definitions?
- One of the central under-tones of the plot is the challenge of money and the profitability of AI. Should AI be judged in terms of the utility it provides humans, or the ability of AI to create their own worlds and cultures? How do we think about “success” (very broadly conceived) in the context of what these computer programs can do?
- How will human empathy change in the coming years as we surpass the uncanny valley and more and more technologies connect with our emotional heartstrings? Is this ultimately an evolution for humanity or just another challenge to overcome in the years ahead?