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Poch Peralta

Freelance Writer / Blogger,


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Will Big Data Make Free Will Irrelevant? Will there ever come a time when we will live without free will?

The Net is flooded with online articles about Big Data I started to think the issue is just being used for publicity and propaganda---until I read this piece relating Big Data to free will

What does it mean when Big Data can make a prediction that someone has a high likelihood of committing a crime? Should the criminal justice system intervene? If predictive analytics can be used to pinpoint our behavior, even before we have purchased a product or committed a crime, how does that impact our understanding of free will and how we treat individuals accordingly?

'"If I could tell with a 98 percent statistical accuracy that you are likely to shoplift in the next 12 months," Cukier tells Big Think, "public safety requires that I interact."

'So what does this interaction mean? Typically you have to commit a crime before you are penalized for that crime, Cukier points out. However, maybe Raskolnikov gets a knock at his door. It's a social worker arriving to offer services. "We’d like to help you."

'Of course, this kind of intervention has its costs. Raskolnikov would become stigmatized in the eyes of his peers, or his school teachers. And after all, he hasn't done anything wrong yet. Data analysis might tell us that he is likely to kill, but doesn't he still have free will?...'


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  • Jan 14 2014: Absolutely ridiculous. Understand that what we call "Big Data" is "Tiny Data" compared with the amount of data required to feed such a system, and believe me, when I say "tiny" I mean really, really, really, tiny, microscopic, almost invisible.

    In order to accurately predict individual human behavior you must be able to accurately predict the behavior of all human kind, not to mention the interactions of humanity as a whole with the rest of the earth. In other words, you need a model of the whole earth. To build such a model you would need an army of several thousands of scientists, mathematicians, engineers, programmers and data annalist to build the software and another army or managers in order to keep the development team coordinated and focus on the goal. It is a system that would take not years but decades to build, and even more decades to test and fine tune. A century or more to complete!!!. The computing power required to run such a system and keep it working, would be far beyond the combined budget of all earth's governments... and that's just economics. If you dig a little bit into the chaos theory it won't be long until you realize that such a system won't be able to accurately predict more than just few seconds in time, maybe minutes if you are lucky. So it is clear that the cost hugely outweighs the benefits by several orders of magnitude, so it is not going to happen in real life.

    Smile, your free will and all of your descendants is safe for at lest the next 10 to 20 generations, may be even to the end of time.
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      Jan 14 2014: That was big calculation Demetrius. Your comparison of Big and Small data
      is like the comparison between the universe and the Earth.

      'Smile, your free will and all of your descendants is safe for at lest the next 10 to 20 generations, may be even to the end of time...'
      Thanks for making me smile with your positive outlook.
      • Jan 14 2014: At the end of the day, any forecasting system is just a scale model of reality, small and incomplete, and thus open for inaccuracy, no forecasting system present or future can achieve 98% accuracy beyond extremely short spans of time, the longer the period of time you're trying to forecast the less accurate the prediction, so, to predict the individual human behavior accurately for long amounts of time is simply impossible or at least impractical.
    • Jan 14 2014: Your response brings to mind Isaac Asimov's"Foundation" series. His psychohistory could predict changes over a large scale, sweeping changes that would occur involving all of humanity, but it was useless in predicting the actions of an individual due to free will. Another example of scifi influencing the path of science?
      • Jan 14 2014: I don't know much about science fiction, but I know a little bit of real science, and I can tell you that, even on fully deterministic systems, you just cannot accurately predict the outcome of an event beyond certain span of time, the longer the period of time you are trying to predict the less accurate your forecast will be, so if you add "free will" to the equation, events can become just impossible to predict in the long term.
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        Jan 14 2014: Let's say that Big Data will not make free will irrelevant. I'd like to ask now:
        Will there ever come a time when we will live without free will?
        • Jan 14 2014: I'm not sure how free our will is now and not sure we should hope for it to be. Our "freedom" or lack of it is tied to how much responsibility we accept for our actions and for the well being of the rest of the life on earth. I think we will always have "will" though. "Will" is the closest I have come to understand the nature of "life". To me life is equated with will, at its most basic unit is the will to live.
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        Jan 14 2014: 'Will' is a very controversial word indeed Jacob. Most spiritual gurus preach
        that 'will' is selfish and carnal. According to the Bible, hell was spawned by Lucifer who
        said 'I will be like the most high'.
      • Jan 16 2014: Jacob,

        The problem was in the Foundation series the math predicted the reaction of the masses, never an individual.

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