This Computer Scientist Built an App That Randomized His Life

What would happen if you gave up your free will?

Steve QJ
Debugger
Published in
9 min readDec 16, 2020

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Photo: Akwice/Pexels

Algorithms control more of our experiences than ever before. What we watch on Netflix, what we listen to on Spotify, what gets recommended to us on Instagram, all of these choices are governed by software designed to learn our preferences and feed us more of what we want. But what if those algorithms didn’t care what we wanted? What would life be like if we truly had no idea what was coming next? That’s the question Max Hawkins set out to answer a few years ago. This is his story.

It was already getting dark by the time the car pulled up outside Max Hawkins’ apartment. His phone buzzed as a notification told him the details of its make, model, and registration number. The car had been ordered from his own Uber account, which wouldn’t have been particularly noteworthy if he’d been the one who requested it. Or if he had any idea where it was supposed to be taking him. But he didn’t.

He got in anyway.

The perfect life

A few weeks earlier, Max had been living the perfect life. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University, he’d landed his perfect job as a software engineer at Google. He was based in the perfect city, San Francisco, famous for its perfect weather and perfect looking people.

Every morning, Max woke up full of energy at precisely 7 a.m., dropped in at his favorite coffee shop to pick up his favorite coffee, and cycled to work via a carefully optimized route that took him precisely 15 minutes and 37 seconds. Everything in Max’s life was exactly as he wanted. Yet he couldn’t shake the feeling that he wasn’t in control.

He didn’t figure out why this was until he read a research paper about a location-based machine-learning algorithm. According to the paper, if you fed the algorithm the coordinates of all the places you’d been for the past week, it would predict with surprising accuracy where you were going to be on the following day.

If a computer knew what he was going to do before he did, why was he even necessary?

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Steve QJ
Debugger

Race. Politics. Culture. Sometimes other things. Almost always polite. Find more at https://steveqj.substack.com