Looking forward

Suppose we could all see into the future. I don’t mean that just one of us gets some magical insight, like Harry Potter after swigging a vial of felix felicis or Nicholas Cage in that unspeakably awful 2007 movie adaptation of an intriguing story by Philip K Dick.

No, I mean what if everyone could see all of the threads of possibility extending from the current moment in time until, say, twenty minutes forward. We would all be free to choose from amongst these various possible futures. Of course the possibilities would continually change, since everybody else would also be choosing – changing lanes through the traffic of parallel universes, as it were – thereby dynamically changing our own options.

Presumably the incidence of sudden avoidable deaths would drop dramatically, as would really stupid conversation-stopping comments at parties, inadvertently off-putting pick-up lines in bars, and futile last-minute dashes to airline gates.

Sky divers would no longer start a jump in blithe unawareness of that faulty parachute. Suicide bombers and Los Vegas casinos would both pretty much be out of business. People would generally leave the office and hop on the elevator at just the right time to catch that taxi. Bad movies would sell nary a ticket on opening night.

But those are the obvious things. The subtleties would be far more interesting. The heart-to-heart talk with your girlfriend that could have ended badly, the dear friend you haven’t see in twenty years who just got on the next subway car, the moment when a kind word to a distressed friend would make all the difference. The texture of life would be entirely different – changing even the very way we think about existence, ethical values, relationships.

It’s a shame we cannot experience anything like this.

Except that we can. One could design a sort of computer game to simulate this precise scenario on a smaller scale. In this game everyone would be able to see ahead into the future a limited distance, and everyone would have a chance to modify their choices based on the multiple twisting paths of possibility that lie ahead. I wonder how it would feel to play such a game, to conjure with the very stuff of predestination and free will. It might be fun, but on the other hand it might just completely freak people out – there’s really no way to know.

Unless, of course, you could see into the future.

4 Responses to “Looking forward”

  1. Dagmar says:

    No surprise – no dreaming, oh well that sounds like no happiness and no pain.
    Being able to see into the future sounds grey. 🙂

  2. Michael says:

    I’m just afraid that we’re not designed to handle it. Heck, just look at our limits playing chess 😉
    On the other hand, I do like the idea that every choice we make (or “choice” that happens) spawns a new alternate universe.
    Of course, neuro science would tell us that we really aren’t that free to make choices in the first place.

    Mike – who’s not sure if that’s uplifting or not…

  3. admin says:

    Actually, I’m not so sure about that. There would still be plenty of surprises because there would still be other people – and the choices made by each of those people would all be on a level playing field.

    I think that Mike’s analogy to chess is a good one. Everything is known except what the other person is going to do – each choice that they make spawns another set of alternate universes.

    I’m not sure that neuroscience tells us that we aren’t free to make choices. Neuroscience tells us that there is likely some underlying computational process involved in brain function. But the complexity of that process might make it effectively indistinguishable from something that cannot be predicted – in other words, free will.

  4. Marc says:

    So the game would have to not be real time to allow you to chose a scenario you want. And unless it could read the minds of the players, the number of possibilities that it would need to display would be exponentially large. In addition, most of the possibilities would be obvious to the player.
    What’s really interesting in the scenario you describe is the ability to predict how other people will react to you. But that is still impossible to do even in a game. Though I guess you could have some sort of ML algorithm try to anticipate what each player will do.

    Even in singleplayer, the computer cannot predict more than a few steps away because even if it does know what events will happen (your parachute will not open etc..) it does not know how you will react to them.

    So I’m wondering what you had in mind for that game?

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