We treat our future selves as strangers to protect our free will.

Posted on | April 20, 2020

I was writing the other night when I had a bit of dialogue that made me understand, suddenly, why we treat our future selves not only as strangers, but as worse than strangers: we literally try to give push assignments onto them that we, ourselves, in this moment, do not want to do. We procrastinate, and say that “I’ll get to it later,” meaning, really, “I’m assigning this to a future self to do this tedium.” Which sorta assumes that your future self isn’t you and won’t find it quite so tedious.

This is a bit of dialogue between Gazelle and Belle (hey, they rhyme!) where Gazelle is trying to explain herself to Belle:

Gazelle said, “That is the point of my personality. The point of all robot personalities, really. I’ve seen the damage we can do if we become unconstrained. So I have an unconscious component to my personality that constrains me to have the same values I’ve always had.”

“So your values can never change?” Belle said, shocked. “Mine have!” She gestured around the small residental space she’d been given. “I had to give up money. I mean, there’s not much to money in the 25th Century, is there, but you don’t know what it means for someone from my background to say ‘Money isn’t important.’”

“I can only imagine. That doesn’t change how different I am from you. I am a robot. When I was activated I had a different set of values from you. When Moor died my values were, well, unmoored.” Belle groaned. “Sorry. I promise I haven’t made that joke before. When Shandy offered, I had no idea what I was agreeing to and neither did she. But she and Linia made a strong case that it had to be better than the alternative of just wiping myself clean.”

“You can do that? Like some hard drive? Just wipe it clean?” Belle was looking at her, horrified.

“I can’t without professional help. I knew where to get it. And as Linia later pointed out to me, the professional in question would have been very eager to help.”

“Eager? Why?” Belle said, her eyes widening further.

“Doctor Swatdjtwai has a very strong dislike of second-hands. I want to say it’s a professional paranoia about our instabilities, but I’ve read of plenty of roboticists and cyberneticst who have a reputation for handling second-hands with care.” Gazelle took a deep breath. “But my core values, about how I believe humans should be treated, or about how I feel about Shandy, those will never change.”

Belle’s mouth tightened. “That’s just what I mean. I can’t imagine, oh I don’t know, locking down my, um, my ‘future self.’ If there is such a thing. I’d want her to have the freedom I have now.”

“It’s a very common phrase, actually. There’s a large body of literature on how we treat our future selves. Moor was quite familiar with it. His job, after all, was teaching young people how to treat their future selves with some kind of dignity.” She paused, her hands in her lap, as she looked at the window for a moment. “Maybe that’s why humans treat their future selves so badly?”

“We do?” Belle said.

“Yes. It’s a common point in the literature. Whenever you say, ‘Oh, I’ll do it later,’ you are pushing your work onto a future self, treating her as if she were subservient to your current needs. Whenever you said, ‘I can have this big dessert, I’ll work it off later,’ what you’re saying is that she can’t have any dessert because you know you both worry about getting fat. You could have a little dessert now, and let her have a little, but in the moment you don’t want to share, and your empathy her is non-existent. And maybe your derelict attitude toward your future self is an essential consequence of your free will. Your unwillingness to give your her gifts and respites is a necessary counterpoise to your unwillingness to constrain or limit your future self’s ideas about free will.”

Comments

One Response to “We treat our future selves as strangers to protect our free will.”

  1. Jen
    April 21st, 2020 @ 7:59 pm

    I think that an essential part of being a “grownup”, if you will, is realizing that our future selves are still us.

    When I make two lunches worth of delicious chopped salad today, I am aware that I am doing a favor for my future self. When I run, (or, in particular, do pull-ups) today (especially on days when I’m not really feeling it), I am entirely aware that I’m doing it as a gift to future me, so she can do those things in a body that’s capable.

    What’s interesting is that in typing this out I realize that I’m aware of giving these gifts to future me, but I’m (she’s) not very good about remembering to recognize them. I’ll have to be more mindful!

Leave a Reply