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Free Will and Artificial Intelligence

Liz Paterek

Free will can arise from the interaction of two algorithmic systems because this can create choice. Human fear of artificial intelligence is based on the questioning of whether or not free will exists. People feel threatened by the notion that free will can arise algorithmically and accidentally. There is a fear that the mind may create free will as an illusion to explain actions. If machines were to have something similar to free will, it would show that free will can arise from algorithmic systems and that free will may arise without intent. Science fiction movies provide some of the strongest cultural expressions of these fears.

Free will is the ability to create options and to choose between them without an external agent such as fate or divine will (1). If people are capable of making any decision they desire, then there is free will; however, if humans are only capable of following set patterns of behavior, then there is not. For instance, if a person feels fear he/she seems to have the choice between fighting or fleeing. If that person, due to an algorithm, was only ever capable of choosing one story, despite being able to create both, they would not have free will.

Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud both noted that there were inner human drives, namely survival and sexual, that never changed regardless of outside factors. Jung took this notion further stating that there were also intrinsic notions of good and evil (2). It seems clear biologically, that the section of the brain that interacts with the environment is fully algorithmic. For instance, humans have reflexes. These require no conscious thought (3). However, Jung's notion suggests that there is also an algorithm in the neocortex. This suggests that there are inborn senses in people, including the notions of morality and freedom that can dictate behavior.

There is a question as to where the line is drawn between things that are only following an algorithm to things can act outside the algorithm and whether anything truly is outside the algorithm at all. Self-awareness alone may not create free will because self awareness does not ensure the ability to make a choice. The movie AI suggests that self aware things may not always have free will. When the robots are a carnival in which they will be destroyed for entertainment, the David is the only one capable of begging for his life. He was not programmed to beg, but he did so because external input told him to feel fear. This allowed him to make what seems to the external observer to be a choice. However, his algorithm may simply be more complex. This scene represents the fear that if machines can imitate free will, then perhaps free will is simply an extremely complicated algorithm in humans.

People like the notion that free will did not arise accidentally. Although evolution would dictate that it must have, other theories such as intelligent design suggest an intentional creator that desired this outcome. If machines could develop free will, not only would it remove some of the uniqueness of humans but it would also show that free will is capable of arising without an intentional creator (2,4). People fear these concepts. The movies Westworld and Blade Runner both present this notion. In Westworld, the humanoid machines in a resort begin to behave outside their programming. They feel anger at being used as entertainment. The man running the resort becomes fearful when he hears that the machines are behaving freely and attacking guests. Blade Runner shows artificially intelligent machines that learn to feel emotion and begin to act of their own free will. Humans fear them because of this and limit their life spans. While both these movies show violent machines that use their free will to kill, the larger fear is rooted in unintentional development of free will by the machines.

There is the question as to whether or not two algorithmic systems can create free will. If so, then machines and humans could both have the capacity for free will. Free will is the capacity to make a choice based on stories that the neocortex generates. Because people show the ability to take different paths in similar situations, it suggests that choice is not something that is completely predictable (2). For instance, students can choose to study or not study for tests based on any number of factors. The positive reinforcement of a good grade may or may not prompt studying for the next test. The large numbers of variables that affect the decision are so subjective and complex that there is no set behavioral pattern even on an individual basis. People may follow trends; however, often they retain the capacity to deviate from these trends. This means that there is no set algorithm and free will exists.

Free will does mean that choices cannot be influenced by external factors. The stories that people are capable of creating are influenced by the society that they were raised in. The inborn sense of morality provides guidelines for behavior that will strongly influence decisions. People's personalities will also influence patterns of behavior. However, none of these factors are capable of controlling behavior entirely. People defy any inborn sense of morality when they commit murder, yet it still happens as a result of free will.

Free will can exist in both humans and machines through the interaction of a story telling algorithm with one that responds to the environment. Whether or not free will is an accident is not important provided that free will exists. Because humans retain the ability to choose between two options, they have free will. It is not threaten by the existence of free will in anything else. The concept that it arose in humans accidentally has been around for over 150 years and is gradually becoming more accepted. Like notions of Darwinian evolution and Copernican solar systems, humans will have to get over the fact that they are not as unique as they once thought (4). Once this happens people will become less fearful of artificial intelligence and the possibility that it could have free will.

Works Cited:

1) 1 March 2005
Available WWW:
2) Walleij, Linus. Chapter 11: Artificial Intelligence. Copyright Does Not Exist. 27 Feb 2005
Available WWW:
3) Ben-Joseph, Elana. What Are Reflexes. August 2004. 1 March 2005.
Available WWW:
4) Teller, Astro. Smart Machines and Why We Fear Them. New York Times. 21 March 1998. 28 Feb 2005
Available WWW:

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