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Prediction and the Perception of Time
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Terry: You know the hardest thing about being smart?
Joe: No.
Terry: I always pretty much know what's gonna happen next. There's no suspense.

From Bandits (2001)

Not a good movie, but a good line. It reminds me of an old Barney Miller episode (I loved Barney Miller...they don't show it anymore, do they?) where they brought in a prisoner (I don't remember what he was charged with) who had an extremely high IQ. He couldn't hold a steady job or find any place to fit into society. At one point he's talking to Dietrich (Steve Landesberg) who is also a brainiac, though the prisoner doesn't know it. The prisoner says something like: "Man, you don't know what it's like to know how people are gonna finish their sentences, to know the ends of movies before the happen, to know the ends of books before you read them. It's torture!"

Also, in Samuel Butler's Erewhon, specifically the chapters entitled "The Book of the Machines", which are meant to be a satire of Darwin's theory of evolution but end of being very interesting if read straight on, he says:

For the future depends upon the present, and the present depends upon the past, and the past is unalterable. The only reason why we cannot see the future as plainly as the past, is because we know too little of the actual past and actual present; these things are too great for us, otherwise the future, in its minutest details, would lie spread out before our eyes, and we should lose our sense of time present by reason of the clearness with which we should see the past and future; perhaps we should not be even able to distinguish time at all...

I bring all this up for a number of reasons. For starters, I'm in the middle of trying to plan a model of neocortical function, based on the idea that prediction is at the core of intelligence.

Also, I just reread Ted Chiang's "The Story of Your Life", which is about a linguist who learns an alien language that allows her to perceive all parts of her life simultaneously. She becomes "unstuck in time" (at least her mind does), much like Billy Pilgrim in Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. When I first read Chiang's story, I knew very little about linguistics and neural correlates to intelligence and consciousness. I know a little more now...not a ton, but enough to come to the story a little better prepared.

And though I still find the story extremely well-crafted and poignant, the linguistic details don't ring quite as true, and the central premise of one's consciousness becoming untethered to sequential experience, allowing one to experience their life like a panoramic picture, all events laid out at once on a huge canvas, seems much less plausible.

Whether or not you deduce causes from effects or infer effects from causes, there is still such a thing as cause and effect. Time still matters. And any being that exists is going to be situated in time. And even if prediction is at the core of intelligence, no matter how intelligence a being is, as Butler points out, it's still going to have limits to the knowledge its basing its predictions on.

Another core feature of intelligence is compressed representation. One of our greatest tools, language, is a way of compressing information about the world into abstract representations which we can then perform all sorts of processing on. And when you compress the amount of data in the real world into the types of representations we use, there's going to be data loss.

Basically, nobody can know everything, and thus nobody can always accurately predict the future. No matter how smart they are, they're going to be surprised. If they weren't ever surprised, they'd basically know everything there is to know.

So this time around I just couldn't suspend by disbelief enough to enjoy the story quite as much, though it and anything else by Ted Chiang comes highly recommended.

And so does everything else I've mentioned this entry. Except for Bandits.

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