Friday Fodder – Freedom of Choice

Once upon a time…

“Sandwiches or Thai?” I ask aloud, out of habit. I imagine Dorothy’s reply: You’re not on track with your carotenoids and folic acid levels are low. Spinach is advised. Perhaps a green curry?

However, today there is no soothing, all-knowing voice in my ear. Dorothy is, as they used to say, “in the shop” for her annual maintenance. I momentarily wonder why they can’t just download the updates and then shrug it off. Maintenance days are a fact of life that we all have to deal with. I suppose that even the latest artificial intelligence is entitled to one day off a year.

Most people just sleep through it. I usually do too but this year I was curious.

“I’ll be fine,” I told Dorothy before she went dark. “You’ve taught me well. I won’t ruin everything we’ve worked for,” I promised. And so I was to stay awake and go to work just like any other day.

I made it through the morning just fine. I chose my own outfit: a pair of fitted black slacks and a pink silk blouse that Dorothy had pieced together before. Something that had inspired a co-worker to say, “You look nice today.” I added matching accessories and fixed my hair into a ponytail.  

Most “choices” are a matter of habit, anyway. Routine. Over the years, Dorothy had refined healthy mornings down to a fine art. Each action is tailored to my metabolism, hormone levels, sleep patterns, life values, and five-year goals. I complete a 3km run that follows the same bike path through a local park each day, and my routine breakfast of hard-boiled egg with mashed avocado and tomato, iced coffee with a dash of stevia. I take my allotted vitamins and minerals with a glass of water that my sink measures out. My shower is on its own timer so I can’t mess that up. I complete the apartment settings, choosing ‘leaving for work’ and make my way to the train station.

“You look nice today,” Andy Lawson said as we simultaneously walked through office entry. It dawns on me that he was the same person who commented last time. And that’s the moment things began to get complicated. Without Dorothy to suggest an appropriate reply, I felt as if I may not have been wearing anything at all. When in doubt, keep it simple, Dorothy would probably say, so I smile a quick “Thanks,” while walking to my desk.

“There’s something different about you…” Andy continued. His slow delivery and the hand he briefly combed through his dark brown curls gave me the feeling he was a little off-script himself. “Maintenance day,” I told him, without slowing my steps.

He chuckled. “Of course. I’ll just leave you alone.” He plopped down in his chair across the aisle from my desk and then just as quickly as if he’d changed his mind, stood up and raised the height of his desk. He looked over at me and smiled. “Better for the lymph nodes… You know, I’m surprised you’re here at all today.”

I paused at my desk, wondering whether I should sit or stand. “Some things just can’t wait,” I said. “Like the ACMEtronics proposal.”

“Do you think you can do it?” I felt Andy’s eyes boring into my head. How rude to pose such an inquisition when he knew I was solo! I felt my jaw muscles tighten and decided to remain standing. “In my sleep,” I shot back.

“Good luck,” he said. 

However, it was not quite as easy as that. Without Dorothy, I dithered over my word choices and sat staring at the monitor for a while trying to remember the rules about semicolons. I lost track of time and hadn’t accomplished nearly enough by the time the co-workers around me began to stir for lunch.

Sophie and Claire paused by my desk on their way out. “Hey, Charlotte, want to come with us to the salad bar?” Claire asked, adjusting a large leather purse over her shoulder.

“Uhh I shouldn’t,” I told them, and immediately wondered if they’d be offended at my declining. Would they stop at my desk the next day? “Maintenance day,” I quickly clarified, hoping it seemed friendly and casual.

“Oh, right – got it,” Claire said, recognition registering as her brown eyes widened. “You’re so brave to be here. I could never!”

“Next time, then,” Sophie said. 

I sighed in relief as the two women’s shoes clicked down the polished wooden hallway. I felt exhausted as if I’d just completed an extra leg of my morning run. I imagined Dorothy’s reaction: Great! 79.8 percent chance they’ll be back tomorrow. Ask them what they’re working on. Promoting friendly office culture is a productive step toward management.

I poured over the pages of my document, ensuring no extra commas had slipped through against the company style manual. It took so much more concentration when missing the red highlights Dorothy would typically send to my smart lens. I felt a presence by my desk and looked up to find Andy again.

“I know it’s risky,” he grinned, “Would you like to come for a walk downtown with me for lunch?”

I didn’t need Dorothy to tell me that my temperature was rising and my heart rate immediately doubled.  “Today?” I tried to keep my tone even, but with a slightly accusing edge. I think it worked. There was his hand in his hair again.

“Especially today,” he grinned. “If you’re going to live this day, you might as well really live it. You could totally order ice cream and your blood sugar would be back to normal by the time she came online again. She’d never know.”

My mouth gaped. I was just trying to get through the day, I hadn’t even considered other possibilities outside the lines.

Andy smiled. “So how about it? You’re not going to ruin your life in a day. And even if you did – it is your life, remember.”

This was the exact reason most people chose stasis on maintenance days. What Andy was saying sparked something inside me. I guess some decisions matter more than others. I tried to replicate Dorothy’s quick analysis. If I went (did I want to go? I tuned in to my elevated vitals and admitted that I probably did), then I’d have a whole hour to fill with Andy, and no one to guide me through. I began to sweat at the thought. I’d probably say something awkward five minutes in, or worse I’d be boring, fail to recall the interesting facts I’d picked up throughout the week. What if I freeze up entirely? I don’t know Andy well enough for companionable silences to feel comfortable. Then I would overcompensate and … chances of a successful lunch? I don’t know, two percent? Is that what Dorothy would say? I dreaded the thought of coming into the office next week to rumours about my social ineptness. I wouldn’t get lunch invitations, and there goes my promotion.

What if I declined? He knew this was maintenance day. What are the chances he would ask again another day? Maybe forty percent?

Is this a date? I wanted to ask Dorothy. Through my smart lens, she would observe his stance, leaning into my desk slightly, and the length of his eye contact. She would read his body temperature and heart rate and maybe even his pheromone levels. Though she couldn’t share the data with me, she would turn the data into an answer: It’s not advisable to date co-workers.

“Come on, your instincts can’t be that bad,” he said.

“No, probably not,” I agreed. “Just boring. I’m afraid you’ll regret it five minutes in.” Dammit, I was over-sharing. It was already a disaster.

“Truman tells me the chances of that are only twenty-one percent. I think it’s worth the risk to find out.”

My face flushed. Dorothy would have had three to five witty suggestions for changing the subject. On my own, I said, “Truman? Is that his name?”

Andy brought his hand to his head and said, “My AI. Yes”

“What did Truman tell you about asking me to lunch?” I asked without thinking.

Andy laughed and shook his head. “Chances you’d agree were thirty-five percent. That’s a risk I was willing to take.”

“That sounds about right,” I said. “Truman is very honest.”

“Yes,” Andy said. “It usually works for us. What about your…um…” he gestured vaguely around me.

“Dorothy.”

“Right. Is Dorothy honest?”

It wasn’t a question I’d considered before. I might have called her incisive, motivating, accurate, responsible, ambitious. These were the life values she was programmed with. My solo brain scrambled to come up with an appropriate answer. Would an appropriate answer be the same as an honest one?

“I-I don’t know,” I said honestly. “Listen, I think you and Truman are at an advantage, being a team today. And I’m sure Dorothy would like to join the party—”

“Like is an interesting word choice. Assuming they can like anything,” Andy interrupted.

I definitely blushed again. “Right. I don’t think she would have had me say that. Anyway, can we do this another day?”

I watched Andy’s shoulder shrug, and his cheeks deflate. “No problem,” he said. I wondered if that was appropriate or honest.

As the day ticked on, a part of me wanted to sink back into the comfort of habit. “Sandwhiches or Thai?” I would ask Dorothy, but another part of me is already thinking about the next step.

Imaginary Dorothy tells me green curry, but when I pause. I feel into it and realise, it doesn’t actually feel honest. I don’t feel the least bit excited about it.

Without her pleasant voice in my ear, I walk under the sandwich shop’s blue awning and find an empty chair. The restaurant looks familiar, but somehow empty without Dorothy’s golden halo in my lens around the perfect chair. I wonder if the one I’ve chosen has the ideal sun exposure, the optimum sound isolation. But it’s empty. It will do.

The waiter approaches my table with a warm smile. “Hi, Charlotte. Would you like your usual?”

The sprouted turkey pesto sandwich here contains the perfect balance of calories and nutrients for my body type. It’s what Dorothy would recommend, but if I listen to my own body, the pull in my chest tells me it’s not what I want right now.

“Actually, can I see the menu?” I blurt out.

This is why people go to sleep on maintenance days, the imaginary Dorothy says in my head.

Ten choices come into my lens. Without Dorothy’s pleasant voice and golden halo, they all carry equal weight. The world feels so wide, so brimming with possibility. And also heavy. My heart beats faster in my chest, just like back at the office.

I wonder if this feeling is the real reason I stayed awake today, not the ACMEtronics proposal. I still have plenty of time – it isn’t due until Friday – but this rush is only available once a year. Maybe Andy is right. Maybe it is worth the risk!

Dorothy would tell me that the chicken fettuccini and crusty garlic bread would make me sluggish in the afternoon and possibly lead to digestive disturbance. She would say the ice cream would result in a crash around 3pm. Not optimal for productivity. In one rebellious moment, I throw caution to the wind and order them anyway because Dorothy isn’t here. I am free! I am here and I feel so exhilarated!

Andy is at his desk when I return to the office after a slow walk back from uptown. He doesn’t look up when I sit down.

“I had the ice cream,” I beam at him across the aisle. “It was incredible.”

It feels a lot less awkward now.

“See? You’re still alive,” he notes with a smile.

“I am here,” I agree. “Though maybe not for long. I am clearly not at my peak today. I’m not even supposed to be here. I was thinking about leaving early and going to the beach.”

“That ice cream was the gateway to hell!” Andy laughs

“Did Truman tell you to say that?”

Andy nods. “Eighty-two percent chance of success.”

“And what would Truman say if I asked you to come to the beach with me?”

“He’s advising me very strongly against it.” Andy’s smile never wavers. “But I don’t always listen.”

“Because to take away a man’s freedom of choice, even his freedom to make the wrong choice, is to manipulate him as though he were a puppet and not a person.”

― Madeline L’Engle

Moral of the Story:

It is by choice, not chance, that we change our circumstances. Machines already mine our past patterns and those of allegedly similar people across the world, and then decide not just which news articles we see, but with whom we should commune and forge bonds, what goods and services we should purchase, or for whom we should vote in our political processes. When our choices are constrained to narrow trajectories of consumption, relationships, news, and products, we cease to see the potential possibilities and life paths. If we trade more and more choice for convenience, we shut out other people’s divergent points of view and rest in the false comfort of our own cluster. Following this trend to its natural conclusion will extinguish our culture of constructive debate and further divide our society across political, intellectual, and commercial lines. This will erode our empathy, social coherence, and loyalty to those who are not in our trajectory. Innovation borne of cognitive and behavioral diversity will be stifled, as well as the tensions that come from ideas, preferences, and tastes colliding. In the name of our environment, economy, and humanity, we cannot afford to risk these consequences. 

In our quest for convenience, we are trading away our free choice. This is the free choice that our ancestors fought wars for: the right to decide where, how, and with whom we live, and the sacred rights of self-determination, a full life, and the opportunity to reach our full potential. By replacing human-curated judgement with data-backed judgement, AI ultimately narrows our field of vision and reduces our social and economic choices – in retail, dating, entertainment, education, health care, and job opportunities. Taken individually, the nudges of mercantile and political interests may be of little consequence. But en masse, our lives become more and more subtly influenced and molded by the companies we let make decisions for us. In this way, the salient tradeoff in the AI age is not privacy, but choice itself. Maintain your freedom. Question everything. Find your own answers. Reach your own conclusions. Make up your own mind. Believe things because you believe them and not just because someone told you to. Live a life that makes sense to you. Live a life you believe in. Life without liberty is a life not lived. Freedom to choose is EVERYTHING.

“Fall of reason is fall of civilisation.”

― Abhijit Naskar

Affirmation: I freely choose my course of action.

Today I choose to be the best version of me I can be! My freedom to choose is my freedom to change. By letting go, I set myself free. I cherish my freedom. My freedom is the fertile soil where I plant, nourish, and harvest my dreams. Freedom powers my success in life. I am a free human being empowered to reject tyranny and oppression in all its masks and guises. I am empowered to speak my mind and follow a path of my choosing. I practice freedom of speech and I grant myself the freedom to speak and act authentically in every situation. My freedom is my birthright. My life and my thoughts are my responsibility. Today I unchain my mind and walk consciously into the light of freedom. Wherever tyranny chains hearts and minds, I am the loudest voice for freedom! I always choose an open heart over a narrow mind. I am totally free to be me.

“True love is built on free will and free choice,

not control and manipulation.”

― Ken Poirot

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