Do we have free will or are our behaviors predetermined? Are we as free as we think we are? These questions are the ones that can be asked when we talk about Aaronson’s oracle, an apparently simple algorithm that, despite limiting itself to studying which keys we press, is capable of knowing which ones we are going to press next. Oracle of Aaronson
It may seem simple and uninteresting, but considering that a simple computer program is capable of knowing how we are going to behave based on how we are responding, it is no small feat. Let’s see it next.
What is Aaronson’s oracle?
Aaronson’s oracle consists of a computer program which has been shown to have a high capacity for predicting human decisions .
The algorithm behind this program was developed by Scott Aaronson and, through a task that the participant must do, the program is able to know what the next key to press will be. The person is in front of a computer with the program in place and must press the D or F keys as many times as they wish and in the order they want .
While the person is pressing keys, the oracle will give feedback, indicating if the key pressed was the one they had in mind or not. That is, the oracle indicates whether it has been correct in predicting that the person would press the D key or the F key. Oracle of Aaronson
How does it work?
As we have already seen, despite the mystery of the name, Aaronson’s oracle is nothing more than an algorithm behind a computer program. This is in charge of analyzing the 32 possible different sequences of five letters, made up of the D and F keys , that the person has previously typed. The algorithm memorizes them as the subject types them and, when the person re-types a sequence that begins in a similar way to one already done previously, the algorithm predicts the next letter.
To understand it better, let’s put the following case. We have typed the following sequence DDDFFF at some point. The algorithm will have memorized it and, if it happens that we have just typed the following sequence DDDFF, the oracle will most likely establish that the next key pressed will be another F. Of course we could type D and make the oracle go I’m wrong, but it can be said that, with the sequences advanced, the algorithm’s prediction percentage is higher than 60% .
When we are pressing the first keys, the percentage of prediction of the oracle will not be high. This is because we have just put information, that is, there are no previous sequences and, therefore, there are no antecedents that can be linked to the information immediately put. On the first try, it is impossible for the oracle to predict whether we are going to put a D or an F. This decision can be totally random, and therefore the oracle will not have a certainty greater than 50%.
However, once we have put in several key sequences, the program will predict our behavior pattern with greater precision . The more keys pressed, the more information and, therefore, the more able it is to know if the following is going to be a D or an F. In its web version you can see the success rates. If these are less than 50% it means that the oracle does not get it right, and higher it means that it is on the right track. Oracle of Aaronson
The surprising thing about the program is that, although we can try to make it confused, the algorithm learns from it . It ends up using our decision against us, making us see that, although we had supposedly done it freely, it really is not like that.
Are we that predictable?
Based on what has been seen with Aaronson’s oracle, consisting of a simple computer algorithm, it is necessary to open the debate on whether the human being, who has always shown his free will, really has such a gift or, on the contrary , it is nothing more than a simple illusion.
The idea behind the concept of free will is that people behave completely independently of our previous acts and stimuli present in our immediate and closest environment. That is to say, regardless of what we have done or what we see, hear or feel, our behaviors can be consciously decided and detached from the past and the environment . In short, free will means that nothing is written, that everything is possible.
The opposite of this concept is the idea of determinism. What we have done before, what we have already lived or what we are living right now determine our actions. no matter how conscious and masters we believe of our behaviors, according to determinism, they are nothing more than the result of what has already happened. They are the next link in a chain of events that are each the cause of the subsequent one. Oracle of Aaronson
Looking at these definitions, one may think that yes, indeed, the idea that yesterday, last week, every day of the previous month or even for years we have eaten at two in the afternoon is a fact that, most likely, is repeat tomorrow, however, this does not mean that it determines that tomorrow will happen. That is, although it is very likely that we will eat at two tomorrow, it does not mean that we cannot change, in a totally random way, the time at which we will eat the next day.
However, what Aaronson’s oracle brings to light is that human beings, even though we try not to be predictable, end up being so . Even trying to prevent a simple computer program from knowing which key we are going to press, simply by pressing the other, we are already being predictable, since the computer has been ahead of us. We have already given you enough information to know how we are going to behave.
Anterograde Amnesia and Repeated Behaviors: The Case of Mary Sue
Some time ago a woman became famous for, sadly, a symptom of her transient global amnesia that turned out to arouse the curiosity of the network. The lady, named Mary Sue, appeared in a video recorded by her daughter, in which she was having a conversation.
So far everything normal, except for one important detail: the conversation was repeated in a loop, and lasted about nine and a half hours . Mary Sue was repeating itself like an old cassette tape. Fortunately for the woman, her amnesia resolved within a day.
This type of repeated conversation is common in people who suffer from anterograde amnesia and, in fact, they have been widely documented, in addition to serving to shed some light on the problem that concerns us here: are our decisions free? The problem that prevents us from verifying whether a decision we have made in the past was the result of our supposed free will or, on the contrary, was determined, is that we cannot travel to the past and try to modify it.
But, fortunately, cases like Mary Sue allow us to understand this a little better. Mary Sue was, metaphorically speaking, in a time loop. He talked, time passed a little and, suddenly, it was as if he were going back to the past. Back to the beginning, Mary Sue began to ask the same questions, to say the same answers . Suffering anterograde amnesia, he could not generate new memories, with which his brain was constantly resetting and, having the same triggering events, he carried out the same behavior. Oracle of Aaronson
With the case of Mary Sue we could come to the conclusion that we are not free, that the idea of free will is nothing more than a mere illusion and that it is totally normal for algorithms like the Oracle of Aaronson, and any other that is being manufactured. , be able to know how we are going to behave.
This same issue has been addressed more scientifically in the prominent work by Koenig-Robert and Pearson (2019). In their experiment, they were able to predict the decisions of the experimental subjects up to 11 seconds in advance , but not before the behavior itself, but before they were even aware of their own choice.
However, and as a final reflection, it is important to say that, although interesting, no computer program or experiment will be able to resolve, in a blunt way, a philosophical debate as old as the world itself. Although scientific research has helped to understand the human being, it is really difficult to understand how we come to behave in natural situations, and not in laboratory contexts.
Scott Aaronson and computer science
Scott Joel Aaronson is a computer scientist and professor at the University of Texas at Austin. His area of research is, fundamentally, quantum computing. He has worked at MIT and has conducted postdoctoral studies at the Institute for Advanced Study and the University of Waterloo, United States.
He has won several awards for his research, receiving the Alan T. Waterman Award in 2012, in addition to the Award for the best Scientific Article on Computing in Russia in 2011, for his work The Equivalence of Sampling and Searching . Among his most notable works is the Complexity Zoo, a wiki in which various calculations belonging to the theory of computational complexity are cataloged . Oracle of Aaronson
He is the author of the blog Shtetl-Optimized , in addition to having written the essay Who Can Name the Bigger Number ? (“Who can say the largest number?”), A work which has been widely disseminated in the world of computer science, and uses the concept of the Beaver Algorithm, described by Tibor Radó, to explain the limits of computability using a more pedagogical language.