What a perfect world it would be if something or someone helped us to make perfect choices or made perfect decisions for us.
Article by Paula Marques | Reading time 9 minutes
We hate to choose. Choosing tires us. It drains us. It makes us spend lots of energy. We hate to decide. Because we know that we will never have enough data to do so. We need more data to make perfect choices. That is why we are desperately trying to create perfect machines, endowed with perfect intelligence, that will help us make even more perfect decisions. And this would be a perfect thought, if it wasn’t completely wrong.
Do we value perfect decisions that much?
Ayanna Howard, a roboticist engineer from the Georgia Institute of Technology concluded that humans do no trust robots that are too perfect. The first prototype of a robot, created to evacuate people in a burning hospital, proved to be a failure, simply because it was too perfect. The robot, which used real-time data from the fire alarm system, was never mistaken on the corridors it chose. The most surprising thing was to realize that this perfect robot was not trusted by the humans who followed it. Ayanna’s team then tried to code some errors that the robot would make. When it realized that it had made a mistake, it apologized and advanced to the right path. Humans trusted this second version much more. Perhaps because they recognized things that we humans are masters at doing? Like making mistakes? And apologizing, when we make mistakes?
Our uneasiness about perfect choices and the need to create another intelligence that would help us decide, started the moment when science revealed to us how we actually decide. We realized that, contrary to what we imagined, we are not able to make any decision without involving our emotions. And the problem is that human emotions are anything but perfect. We also realize that other people impact almost all of our choices, because we are social beings and we will always want to be part of the group. And the problem is that other people, as we all know, are anything but perfect. We realize that our choices almost never result from a rational and conscious process. And this scared us. And still scares us. It was more or less like concluding that the unusual method of decision by the ancient Persians, which was well described by Herodotus, was, after all, much more sophisticated than it appeared to be. They made big decisions, discussing them twice. The first time drunk. The second time sober. If, when they were sober, the decision was the same as the one made when they were drunk, it endured. If it were the contrary, it was rejected. Does this original method of making choices help explain the hegemony of the Persian civilisation for so many centuries?
But was Ayanna’s first prototype really a perfect robot?
Through our human eyes, yes. We truly believe in the perfection of algorithms. But we overlook an important detail. That the data that feeds the deep learning of artificial intelligence is our data. That data that we have produced for decades and that hold all our unconscious human prejudices and contain all our stereotypes concerning gender, origin, race, social status, which today are in danger of being amplified by machines. When faced with the blurred image of a person in a kitchen, the algorithm identifies a woman, and behind a car steering wheel, a man, our hopes of having another intelligence at our side, that will help us make perfect decisions, begin to fade.
In the midst of so much uncertainty and faced with an infinite number of options, there is one thing we can be sure of. We will make mistakes. We are going to make wrong choices over the coming times. Many. Countless. We and the algorithms. Yes, they will also continue to help us make mistakes. But perhaps that is not bad news after all. If we can accept that our choices are a healthy mix of the ecstasy of seeing a colourful wheel of fortune spinning before us and the serene melancholy that invades us when the wheel stops and reveals the result of our choice. A kind of fusion of Damien Hirst’s circle spin paintings and Edward Hopper’s thoughtful characters.
And, maybe, at that point, we will finally understand that the biggest illusion of all is the illusion that our life would be perfect if our choices were perfect.
We hate to decide. We hate to choose. Because we hate to lose. Whenever we choose, we lose something. We lose everything we didn’t choose. And we don’t want to lose anything, because we always want everything. If we learned to lose, we might not become so uncomfortable when it comes to choosing. Perhaps we would not be so afraid to decide. Because in case we made a mistake and entered a burning corridor, we would just have to do like Ayanna’s robot. Apologize. And keep on walking.