Tea or Coffee

I’ll grab a newspaper and flick through the pages. I can almost guarantee in all the thousands of words use to describe the events of the week nowhere will you see the word “determinism”. Now, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Or at least anyone who doesn’t spend their days in the systems engineering world. Yet, the basic idea of determinism is ingrained in everyday thinking.

Yesterday, I bought a new kettle. It works well. I can take cold fresh water from my kitchen tap, fill it to the two-cup line and press the button with confidence that within a couple of minutes I’ll have boiling water. Cause-and-effect are truly well connected. I pay my electricity bill and expect current to flow when the switch is thrown. I’d be really annoyed if my new kettle didn’t do what it said it would do on the box it was packaged in. My cup of tea is assured.

Now, let’s step into an imaginary future. Well, a future that not as imaginary as might first be thought. I’ll set aside my morning tea drinking habit and brew a coffee instead. I haven’t got one, but they are certainly being advertised. That’s a coffee machine that’s connected to the INTERNET[1]. It can be given voice commands to brew my favourite brew. It has an app where I can set-up my preferences. It’s a whizzy way to get an espresso.

I don’t say this function exists, only that as soon as the connection is made to an external service what happens next becomes just a little less predictable. A coffee machine with an integrated voice activation system will do as it’s told. At least we assume it will do as it’s told. Thus, cause-and-effect remain connected. Stand back. The door has now been opened. Let’s say, after I acquired the coffee maker the anxious manufacture changes the algorithm that runs the machine. They want me to drink the maximum number of their wonderful coffees but without going to the dark side.

Next time, I go for a smart espresso the machine talks back: “Are you sure? You’ve had 5 coffees already this afternoon.” I have no knowledge of, or control over the algorithm that’s coming up with this talk back. The question might be fair, sensible, and looking after my health but, in that moment, I have no ability to predict what the machine will do next. Will it let me carry on regardless? Or will it say: “No, you’ve had enough. Come back and talk to me in an hour.” The simple cause-and-effect relationship I have with my new kettle is no more. Without being warned, I’ve strayed into the world of non-determinism.

I think you can now appreciate the purpose of this short article. It’s to point out that our quaint classical deterministic world is going to go through a shakeup. Think of the scenario above for a car or an aeroplane. It’s not inevitably bad. In fact, non-deterministic systems offer huge potential benefits. My message is that we’d better be ready for all aspects of this transition.

I’ve made the contrast between either one or the other. In realty, there will be a fuzzy zone between what’s deterministic and what’s non-deterministic. The tea or coffee drinker may have a choice in different places at different times for different reasons.


[1] https://www.lavazza.co.uk/en/landing/voicy.html

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