What Came Next, Why We Act

The future of free will

Artificial intelligence will not kill us all. Instead, it will ground us like an angry parent, send us to our room.

David Krakauer suggests that the threat of technological progress is not existential, but volitional. He asserts that algorithms that curate, like the one that recommends our next movie on Netflix, erode the concept of free will. To the algorithm, the tendency of humans to surprise, to contradict themselves, to act unpredictably is an inefficiency. By constraining our set of visible and viable options, artificial intelligence effectively negates the possibility of freely-made choice.

Krakauer provides an analog example in our choice of dress:

“I am a Western male, you are a Western male: you are probably wearing trousers and a shirt. The sartorial options available to you are extraordinarily small. If you look at world culture, and historically look at Persia or the Roman empire, or China, the way we have chosen to adorn ourselves is incredibly diverse and fascinating. And yet, now as Western men we all look like clones. I would claim you are not exercising your judgment, you’re being told precisely how to dress. And when you get to exercise your judgment, it is a very, very low dimensional space around texture and color that the manufacturers of clothing, based on purely economic efficiency, have decided to give you.”

But is his premise accurate? If, as Krakauer implies, free will is exercised via deliberation over a complete data set, then even nature itself is a kind of curator. After all, our environment constrains the availability of flora and fauna we might choose to consume or wear or convert into shelter. Does the height of trees and the tensile grip of our fingers limit our choice of recreation any less than Amazon’s recommendation engine? Are we truly exercising free will when our habitat and biology provide only a narrow band of easily-accessible options?

Of course we are. Free will is not at stake, but heroism. Heroism is finding, then crossing the boundaries of conventional wisdom and curated options. It is grasping for the uneasily-accessed branches.

Religious theocracies curtail choice, but not free will. Authoritarians build fences, heroes hop over them.

Algorithmic curation suggests we choose from a small set. Heroes venture beyond recommendation.

Artificial intelligence draws from the oldest human tradition. Every society places borders around what constitutes normal, responsible, civilized, sacred. So do our psychological biases and intuitions. If artificial intelligence further shrinks our set of choices, then the opportunity for heroism has never been greater.