Free Will, Part II: Can Computers Choose?

In “Free Will: The Illusion and the Reality, and How Our Minds Rule the Day”, I discussed a view that the multi-level capacity of the human mind, i.e. its ability to loop back on its own processes, enabled our exercise of free will.Sci Burg

Consistent with that, I argued we needed to “exercise” our free will, since absent a disciplined approach, absent our self-watching of our own decision making, that decision making could become controlled by subconscious and predetermined factors. Free will could go away.

A question now is can computers exercise free will? That is an interesting question in itself (at least to some; others within their free will can decide that the question is not interesting). The question also shines a spotlight on the still considerable skills of the human mind.

Computers: What They Can Do

Computers today have an array of amazing capabilities, but also severe limitations.

Computers are fast, of that there is no doubt. And they are getting faster. Computers are flexible, to the extreme; they can be programmed to perform multiple tasks, just about any task. Computers can self-correct; they can review their output and adjust factors and even coding to improve their accuracy and performance.

For all that, computers have limitations. Computers are not yet very good at sensory input. The human brain, thanks to several hundred million years of evolution of life (or if you prefer due to the design of a god or higher power) can integrate sight, sound, smell, touch and taste, and do so essentially instantly. We can then store such integrated experiences, millions of them, and match our current experiences, even if distorted, shifted or disoriented, to the stored past experiences.

In contrast, computers can not (yet) do sensory integration. We do have computers that can process visual input to navigate obstacles. We marvel at that. But consider human’s ability to experience and recount the rich sensual tableau of a mother’s kitchen during Thanksgiving preparation. That no computer can do.

Computers, in the same vein, are not good at forward visualization. Certainly computers can project forward the weather, but they can’t project forward a sensory image of what twelve inches of snow looks like, and how to handle the children when school is cancelled.

Computers are not yet very good at meaning. Humans are. Humans can take logical structures, symbolic shapes, remembered experiences, forward visualizations, categorized information, and create meaning. Computers can link information on these items. But that is akin to drawing lines on a paper. Computers can not in any sophisticated way build integrated three-dimensional, symbolic/visual/temporal constructs to create what we call meaning.

Computers have only limited ability to be self-reflective. Computers certainly can execute feedback. They can have algorithms that compare their calculated output or action against the goal, and correct the algorithms. But humans have algorithms that are inherently self-referential. We are conscious, and we are conscious of our consciousness. We are observers, and we are observers of how we observer. We are thinkers, and we can think about how we think.

Computers, so far, do not have algorithms that are so inherently self-reflective. If a computer has an algorithm for observing the terrain, that algorithm can not turn inward and observe itself observing. If a computer has an algorithm for correlating text passages across millions of input documents, that algorithm can’t correlate the bit streams internal to the itself that are generated by the process of correlating text passages.

Can Computers Exercise Free Will?

Let’s start with what we mean by free will, or at least a common sense, but decidedly non-rigorous, definition of free will. Let’s say free will would be the ability to select among alternatives to best advance goals, and do so in creative ways that may or may not extend from prior conditions or experiences.

I would then say computers can make free choices. Computers can look at situations with multiple options, and select one in way that extends beyond the deterministic limits of their programming.

For all that, I would say, however, that computers can not make free choices anywhere comparable to the range that humans can.

Let’s examine where computers make free choices. Let’s start with a computer controlled vehicle, by itself, in a complex but static terrain, faced with a decision on which of three roads to take. Such a computer/vehicle combination could survey the roads, identify hazards, calculate physical parameters, assess probabilities, then run Monte Carlo simulations to pick the best choice.

This would reasonably resemble free will. Why? Because the link between the initial conditions plus computer code, and the final outcome, that link, though in some sense determined, is so intricate, that the concept of cause and effect starts to be devoid of meaning. If two of the three roads were acceptable, and of almost equal weighting, the extensive series of calculations the computer executed, and the potential for the outcome of those calculations to be sensitive to minor variations, means essentially no ability exists to predict the outcome from the input.

So I will count that as the ability to choose between options without the choice being decidedly determined by initial conditions.

But Human Free Will

That is nice, computers can guide a motorized vehicle through rough, unknown terrain in experimental situations.

But put that vehicle into a war. Several things happen.

Computers can not ascribe meaning to the attributes of war. Death, destruction, mercy, justice, sacrifice, justification, horror, subjugation, honor, bravery, and on and on, the computer can not in any way integrate those critical and important consequences and characteristics of war into any realistic sense of meaning and ethics. Certainly we can develop algorithms to convert those items to numbers, but even with that, the computer can not inherently attribute to those numbers the meaning the underlying attributes of war have for humans.

Computers can not integrate the chaos of ground warfare. The battlefield contains friendly and enemy troops, civilians, physical objects, smoke, sounds, hazards, and on and on. At present, highly trained humans, given the superiority of sensory processing of the mind, can integrate that information, compare it to prior situations and training, and determine a course of action. And do so in real time. Computers can not.

Computers can not reflect on their own decisions and involvement in war. Humans, while making decisions on how to wage war, can reflect on the decision to create situations where such decisions are needed. Humans can ask why we are at war, and examine their own motives, and then change their decision. Robots, if programmed to engage in war, might have some input vs. output comparators, but could not use their algorithms for fighting a war, to review whether fighting that war made moral sense.

Free Will, Humans vs. Computers

The human brain, through biological, psychological and cultural evolution, and for some the impetuous of a God, now possesses complex, integrated, multi-level capabilities. These are uniquely adapted to our external and internal environment, and richly endowed with emotion, meaning and self-reflection.

Computers, just decades old, remain largely linear, single level, forward processing, very fast, calculators. That not withstanding, computers, thanks to their own capabilities, and the ingenuity of humans, are advancing light years faster than humans ever did. It is not know if an inherent barrier exists to computers possessing the capabilities of human brains, but if no such limit exists, computers in future centuries, or even future decades, could surpass the human brain.

However for now, that is not the case. Computers, in terms of free will, remain the lesser, and though in some sense they can exercise free will, they are not nearly on the same level as humans.

David Mascone has degrees in Engineering and Business. He has interests in science, philosphy and theology. His leisure activities include sports, hiking, science fiction and little league umpiring. His intellectual focus is finding consistency and synergies between the great masterpieces of human intellect, including religion, science and art.