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The decision machine

"I’ve come to really like frozen yoghurt. There's something so human about taking something great and ruining it a little so you can have more of it." Michael (The Good Place, S1, E6)

In Netflix’s “The Good Place”, Ted Danson plays Michael, an angel-like architect who has designed the afterlife where the best people get to go when they die. He is constantly perplexed by the human condition, and due to demand, has filled the neighbourhood with frozen yoghurt outlets.

If humans were entirely rational, we would always make decisions that were in our best interests. Given an array of options, and with limitless capacity for making detailed comparisons, rational humans would take out pensions at the first opportunity, save money where the interest rates gave the best returns, only buy things they needed to use, switch energy suppliers regularly to get the best deals and complete college assignments early.

REAL humans, on the other hand, are sub-optimal decision-makers. Especially decisions that are complex, involving many factors and where the outcome of that decision is a long time off. We don’t have the mental capacity to think our way logically through every option and outcome, so we apply heuristics and biases, which makes our lives much easier, but can leave us a little error-prone. We would barely admit to how we figure stuff out, if we even knew how we did it.

Imagine someone built a supercomputer that could tell you every decision and every action you need to take to lead the longest, healthiest, wealthiest life (or whatever you think success looks like). All you would need to do is put your life’s goal into the machine and it will calculate the optimal path for you… what to eat for lunch, what time to go to bed, what to wear, which course to enrol on, which street to buy your house in, who to marry…

Did you have an allergic reaction to the paragraph above? It’s possible such a computer could exist, if not now, soon. If you could get one, would you use it? If you used it, would you act on what it said, or would you argue back?

Or do you prefer to stumble your way heart-first through life like everyone else?

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