Eric Errthum
Intro to Philosophy

The Free Will Computer

People have argued over the idea of free will for centuries. However, it has been only recently that the idea of man being able to create a creature possibly possessing free will has become plausible. Therefore, let us assume that as a result of some advances in technology and cognitive science, a computer is created such that it has the ability to be aware of some or all of its programming. Further, suppose that it must be programmed in order to do anything and that it can only do something that it has been programmed to do, which may include writing its own programs. Then one might be inclined to ask how the notion of free will applies to this machine, and what we can learn about our own free will from such a computer.

First, to the outside observer the machine could easily be made to appear to possess free will. Many of the programs we presently run on our PC’s seem to have a mind of their own. They save documents automatically, alert you of possible problems, and even shut down when numerous problems occur. However, even the average user realizes that programmers have merely structured the software to produce the desired outcome. In addition, a specific outcome always follows the same antecedents. So whereas a simple front of free will may fool a handful of people, most would be able to see past the facade and recognize the true machinery of the computer.

Therefore, for our “aware” computer to appear to have free will, it would have to rely on a far more complex system of programs than the present static user-friendly mode. One possible system might rely on the idea of generating random numbers. Then, when given a choice, the computer could simply choose randomly. Consequently, the same antecedents would not necessarily produce the same outcome, and the outside observer may believe that the computer truly possesses a free will. However, since no type of algorithm can create truly random numbers, the computer would not actually possess a free will. In fact, if one knew the exact psuedo-random number generating algorithm, they would easily be able to predict the computer’s choices.

Another possibility is to program the computer to have a complex set of goals. Then, by providing a system of priorities, the computer simply acts so that it comes closer to achieving its goal. Still, to give the illusion of free will, the goal system would have to be unending and dynamic. Such a possible goal could be to learn as much as it can about how to learn. Then, as it progressed towards its goal, its methods and intermediate goals would change causing the outsider to believe the computer was freely picking its actions.

The idea that such a computer can appear to have a free will can shed light on how we look at other humans. We realize that although other people seem at first to possess a free will, after numerous observations and study, we can begin to recognize the goals a person may have or the general way they make their decisions. Basically, this is the idea of psychology: to learn how to predict human behavior by understanding the inner workings of the brain.

Continuing on, the computer itself could be made to believe that it has free will. The easiest way to achieve this would involve programming it to be unaware of the techniques mentioned above. Since it has been programmed to be aware of some of its program, the programmers could have simply not programmed it to be aware of the structure of its decision-making components. In addition, since it must make a decision by accessing these components before it can act, the decision-making components themselves could be wired such that they never allow the computer to choose to make a program that figures out how the computer makes its decisions. In other words, safe guards could be implemented so that the computer is never able to figure out how it chooses. One step further, the programmers could force it to believe it has free will. Suppose the computer has been programmed such that whenever it asks the questions, “Do I have a free will?” or “What causes me to choose the way I do?”, it receives an answer that leads it to believe it has free will. Clearly, the computer would never progress to the point of finding out what causes it to choose the way it does. However, if the computer has been programmed with a proper set of goals, it would never ask such questions since they would not help to further the task of accomplishing the goal.

Again, these ideas can lead us to ponder our own supposed free will. There might possibly be some sort of safe guard in our brain that prohibits us from knowing why exactly we choose the way we do. Obviously, we cannot access our subconscious and yet in the deep recesses of the brain the final decision is made. For some reason or another, natural selection has driven us to the inability of bringing our subconscious thoughts into our conscious. Alternatively, if you are a creationist, it is just as good an argument to say that God has not bestowed on us the power to understand our own convictions.

Therefore, when it comes down to the final question of the computer actually having free will, only the creators can know the answer. Only they would know the powers and abilities they had originally given to the computer. Then, since our computer was supposedly manmade, in order to make a computer with a free will, the programmers themselves would have to understand their own human volitions. Since man has yet to come to grasp this concept, the conscious computer would not, in any way, possess a truly free will.