Free-Will Machines

Smart phone talking to other smart things!

Our daughter is a city girl who enjoys her gadgets – especially her smart phone. Recently she was driving towards Dunsborough getting hungry at around 11.30. She tapped the word ‘Restaurants’ into her phone, and immediately a list of Dunsborough’s best wineries and eateries appeared on the screen. One looked enticing. She tapped again, and its menu scrolled down the screen.

To those of us brought up before televisions became common place, this “connectedness” almost seems magic. There’s no denying the convenience of having so much information at your fingertips, but ethical issues raised by information technology are only just beginning to be explored.

Internet users are all becoming familiar with technologies of persuasion: when I visit Amazon to look at books, a list of books that “I might like” greets me. On Facebook, ads target me and my interests, convincing me that everyone out there shares my interests in politics and Biblical languages. Because it knows my age and sex it tries to scare me with ads about prostate cancer or entice me to meet friendly women in the area.  Because web-sites record choices and information we share about ourselves online the internet “knows” our likes and dislikes. Clever mathematical formulae called algorithms match my interests with those of corporations wanting me to buy from them.

The truth is Amazon doesn’t really care what books I like. To a large warehouse like Amazon, books are valuable only for the dollars they fetch. Contrast this with St John’s Books in Fremantle, where Shirley the manager knows me as a person, and is not only interested in what books I like. She shares a genuine interest in books. Shirley occasionally shows me a book that is quite outside my normal interests. An algorithm would never do that.

Alongside the technologies of persuasion is “the internet of things”. You may have noticed how increasingly computers are interacting directly with other computers.

The restaurant “app” my daughter uses interacts with the computers in the restaurants.  Or in large warehouses, robots scan bar-codes and move goods around based on information they have gathered about how many units have sold or shipped. The ”internet of things” changes the ways human beings make decisions: instead of a rough guess as to whether this pallet of goods should be moved, the human operator now consults the machine. Instead of asking friends or reading reviews, my daughter bases her choice of restaurant on the machine’s information.

Smart phone users are downloading dieting programs which calculate the calories they have burned in exercise, those in the cake they have just eaten, and the benefits of the salad they had for lunch. Instead of internal, instinctive decisions about what they eat or where they walk, people defer to the computer.

In the warehouse, or on the way to the restaurant, or in choosing a diet, responsibility for important decisions increasingly shifts outside human minds and hearts.

Thinkers are concerned that machines are eroding our free will by taking over aspects of our decision making.  One recent article asks, “Are we still autonomous?” Stanford University in the US advertises machines designed to change humans.

We don’t need to fear these machines. Humanity has been through the same with other powerful technologies. Imagine the changes brought about by the invention of writing 5,000 years ago – or by the printing press 500 years ago. Both changed the way humans remembered, calculated, argued and decided.  We will live through the changes that the internet of things will bring.

But I do believe we should be aware of the ways information technologies are being used to influence and persuade us, and, by being aware of their power, we can decide the extent to which our machines can tell us what to do.

First posted on Dunsborough Anglican Church web-site.