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Defying Buridan’s Ass – Factoring “Free Will” in decision making and A.I.

Vijay Sampath

Author: Vijay Sampath

Date: Thu, 2017-04-13 10:34

Thanks to Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, and the recent US elections, I was reminded of the paradox of choice, popularly known as Buridan’s Ass (actually Aristotle’s dog)

A satire on the work of the famous 14th century French priest/philosopher/scientist, Jean Buridan (He created the concept of Impetus and his work in physics, logic and economics is fascinating), the theory is explained thus-

If a perfectly rational donkey, that is equally Hungry AND Thirsty, were equidistant from a bale of hay and a pail of water, it can’t rationally choose between hunger and thirst, and because of its rationally induced indecision, it will choose neither and die!

This theory is interpreted differently for varied decision making contexts, and moral vs rational philosophical issues such as:

  • Over-reliance on rational thinking that leads to decision paralysis
  • The role of free-will in breaking a deadlock
  • The view that in a moral deadlock, greater good  will prevail over self-interest
  • A situation with perfectly equal amounts of information and identical preference will cause random, unpredictable behavior

An inverse version of Buridan’s dilemma was apparently played out in the United States presidential elections.

Media reported as if the proverbial Ass i.e. the voter, had 2 unequal choices, “Good aka Hilary” vs “Bad aka Trump”. But media oversold “good” as the “rational” choice, and the Ass was informed it had no dilemma, and should go with “good”, without hesitation.

And when the unexpected happened, the "smart" people found it shocking that 59 million Americans became “irrational” and voted “bad” to victory!   

I took out two learnings from this episode, keeping in perspective our increased reliance on elitist intellectualisation, artificial intelligence and machine-led decision-making and therefore a distancing from real-life interactions.

1)     The constant underestimation of free will

2)     The benefits of exploring the unknown, instead of seeking safety in the known or the obvious

 1. Factoring free-will in deterministic prediction models

To delve into the understanding of choices, we have to factor in free-will. This in turn, is linked to the theory of determinism. This theory postulates that all actions and outcomes, especially moral choices, are based on pre-existing causes. Determinism denies the existence of uncertainty in the universe because nothing is new, therefore suggesting that free will is not possible, as all action is tainted by prior experience.

(The famous clash of these views, was Einstein’s firm conviction on the deterministic route vs Niels Bohr’s insistence on uncertainty, leading to the evolution of quantum theory.)

But quantum theory or uncertainty begs the question- Can analytics evolve from deterministic rationality to quantum uncertainty? Did lots of so-called “deterministic” voters actually exercise free-will which was based on no prior experience- After all Trump had no prior background in Politics or governance, so his promises could carry no pre-existing taints, when compared to Clinton’s deterministic lifetime record of public service.

2.  Humint vs Sigint and the artifical “Intelligence” of Intellectualism

As humans cede more decisions and actions to Artificial Intelligence, it becomes necessary to reiterate the value of actual physical interaction, independent analysis, intuition and creative thinking.

Once we start relying on the results of computational analysis as the absolute truth, cognitive thinking will fall victim to the “programmed” insights of AI.

One example of machine generated influence is the current challenge of “fake news” and the reliance on “bots” to manufacture public opinion and thereby artificially move sentiment

True insights into people come from interacting with people physically, not with their digital avatars or bot proxies. The value of body language or voice tonality in determining a person’s behavior cannot be replaced by any amount of digital tools. As they say in the Intelligence or Spy business, “Humint” (or Human Intelligence) is always more valuable and arguably more reliable than “Sigint” (or Signal Intelligence)

When a researcher visits a poor person's home and sees the physical conditions, it should signal new insights based on ground realities or “humint”,  that would not be available in digital Q&A sessions or algorithmic calculations based on a certain IPs digital behaviour.

And then there is the consensus of the elite. Are today’s homogenized, cocooned intellectual "elite" (me included) distanced from the life of the masses? Considering that our social and cultural interaction is limited to our own type, is it possible that we elites make our hypotheses and conclusions only from our homogeneous experiences? And therefore, after some time this so called intelligence is then “artificial” as it is removed from reality?

Does the outsider from the "real world" have an advantage over us?

History tells us that every advancement or mutation in human civilization has come from the repudiation of known variables, in favour of a path hitherto unknown. What is overlooked every time we take decisions or analyze complex future outcomes, is that there is a third or fourth choice, one that doesn’t conform, but offers a solution. In the case of the Ass, it was programmed to imagine that either/or was the only rational choice and that it was totally irrational to make the third choice of consuming both options in sequence, i.e. going from Hay to Water.

Our minds are heavily programmed by life experiences, fears, influencers (like Media opinion in case of the US elections) and societal norms We cannot reach our true potential if we limit our thinking solely to this “rational programming” and fail to exercise our free will, trapped as we are in our societal cocoons 

Progress lies in imagining the unknown and not being the proverbial ass. Did Trump win because he knew this?




Thanks for such an insightful piece. Of all the points put forth in the write up, one point that struck a chord with me was about widening gap between various social strata. . This has created multiple homogeneous clusters wide away from each other. Moreover, the current digital revolution has accentuated homogenization within these groups. The analytic algorithms used by Google, Facebook, News sites track and analyse our interests and inclinations and suggest articles, media, posts etc. which comply to that pattern. Hence we are constantly fed on what we already believe in and even without our confirmatory bias coming into play, these algorithms lead our mind to validate those beliefs. We often do not realize but on paying closer attention it becomes evident how targeted these algorithms are. Our thought process snowballs to believe in opinions that we think are right, never knowing the other side. Take up any opinionated post on Facebook and observe the 'comments war' below it. No party is ready to heed to other party's views. This is an outcome of an intellectual inbreeding of views catalyzed by the AI and analytics. As this juggernaut of 'targeted marketing' moves forward, I fear, that there will be lesser room for opposing views. I fear that I would be isolated from views, opinion, things that contradict me and my opinion. And this is detrimental to development of any society. Hence, as the author mentions we need to keep the organic channel of human interaction alive and use it more and more to counter the engineered knowledge fed to us in the digital world. We need to unburden ourselves, like Burdian's ass from believing into just the set of views that are presented to us.

Thank you sir, for such a thought provoking piece. The average consumer is thought of as a rational consumer, bereft of emotions and perceives any decisions taken as black or white. What most people fail to understand is that unlike Buridan’s Ass, there exist other choices, other avenues that we can explore only, but only if we take the “burden” of looking for them. We find it hard to look for other choices beyond what are immediately available because of the social conditioning that is happening around us. The media is being dominated by the digital forces and the digital space is being taken over by bots, which can be programmed to promote certain kind of topics in any light the programmers wish to portray and sway public sentiment. After reading these, our assumptions of the world being white or black solidify. We are not able to see any other alternatives. The advent of AI, marks a quantum leap in progress and I along with everyone feel that AI is the way forward. AI will make us more productive, reduce out time spent on mundane tasks and make us more focused on what is necessary. But a caveat is that we should not stop using our intuition, irrational thinking to make decisions. Most great discoveries are not made my people who are only rational, but made by the ones who made combined their hard work, powers of observation, empathy, insight and intuition. We can replicate hard work and observations in AI, but the empathy that we feel for another human being, the insight and unexplained leap of inspiration that we get, all this can’t be taught to an AI. So any news, information originating from AI should be well thought of before we form opinions about it. This will help us broaden our thoughts. To truly fulfil one’s potential, one should realise that factoring only the rational thoughts, make him no better than a machine, and is analogous to trying to improve with one hand tied behind his back.

The Trump election phenomenon has baffled many rational thinkers – each one with their own version of reasoning- trying to explain the aberration from the US exit poll results. Some of them might be true as well, but I would like to think about the reason from the perspective of Buridan`s Ass – the voters. One of the biggest learning I had during my MBA is that “the context is the king”. So, I would like to present some facts to build up the context from the voters` perspective: - Production and manufacturing sector`s decline from past 30 years in US, multiple job losses and bankrupting companies. - Employment in US plunging year on year both in rural and urban areas. - The psychological sting of recession was still not over from the minds of citizens. - Upsurge of terrorist outfits like ISIS – more ferocious than Al-Quaeda – revised the horror story of unprecedented terrorist attacks. - The great American dream – shown by Democrats - was fading away slowly, resulting anxiety and insecurity. Trump being an astute businessman probably knew that in the war between basic needs and rationality, latter goes to back burner. Agreed, he did not promised any esoteric policy reforms, but connected with deep rooted public issues by using simple communication to the citizens and rest is history. In my view, the “Ass” in this situation knew exactly what it wanted and made a trade-off, unlike the Buridan`s Ass.

@Rohan,@Anitesh,@ Aditya - Thank you for the detailed commentary on the importance of free will. Your insights helped me think further on the subject and hopefully trigger new ideas on the subject, Cheers, Vijay

The article succinctly presents the problem statement of The Paradox of Choice and elaborates on the implications it has on our increasingly digitized world, where we are in the process of progressively being more and more reliant on Artificial Intelligence for decision making in everyday life. The Paradox of Choice is concisely explained to the reader through the parable of the donkey (Burdian’s Ass) starving itself to death when faced with the burden of making a perfectly rational choice between equivalent hunger and thirst. This analogy presents the limitations of deterministic problem solving, as it leaves out the uncertainty brought in by the free will of humans, and consequently the freedom of choice. This idea is explained even better by studying the recent outcome of the US election, where the common voter seemingly decided to forgo the rational deterministic choice based on known experience (Clinton) and exercised free will to choose the unknown ( Trump ). All of this points at the limitations of deterministically programmed insights which drive the current phenomenon of Artificial Intelligence (AI). There is a massive opportunity for improvement in the development of AI, and this involves factoring in of aspects like the dynamics of actual physical interaction, and the uncertainties brought in by intuition, creative thinking and free will. This becomes even more important in the context of the emergence of a “cocooned elite”, who are increasingly distanced from actual interaction with the masses, and hence are becoming reliant on manufactured opinion. This runs the risk of a consensus of artificially moulded opinion which is far removed from reality. It is well pointed out that the singular events which have brought about quantum leaps in the progress of mankind have primarily emerged from thinking “out of the box”. The true potential of the human mind is unleashed by our power of imagination, which is driven by independent thought and can lead to non-conformist choices. This reiterates the need to expand the scope Artificial Intelligence from the defined realms of rational programming and take into account the uncertainties thrown in by the complexities of human intelligence.

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