What’s Expected of Us (Chiang)

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What’s Expected of Us
Summary of the Short Story
Microsummary: A device called Predictor, which demonstrates the absence of free will, led to a cognitive plague causing akinetic mutism, a state of waking coma, in a third of its users.

A device called the Predictor had been sold to millions of people. This small device, similar to a car remote, had a button and a green LED light. The light would flash one second before the button was pressed. No matter how hard people tried, they could not press the button before the light flashed. The Predictor was designed with a circuit that sent a signal back in time, proving that free will did not exist.

The immediate problem is that Predictors demonstrate that there’s no such thing as free will.

People became obsessed with the Predictor, trying to outsmart it. However, the realization that their choices did not matter led to a state of akinetic mutism in some individuals. This condition, previously rare and caused by brain damage, became widespread. People stopped making choices and engaging in spontaneous action, leading to a state similar to a waking coma.

Doctors tried to reason with the patients, arguing that their lives had been the same before the Predictor. However, the patients would respond that they now knew the truth about free will. Some argued that the change in behavior caused by the Predictor proved the existence of free will, but this reasoning was flawed.

A warning was sent from the future, advising people to pretend they had free will and to behave as if their decisions mattered. The sender acknowledged that it was all predetermined who would succumb to akinetic mutism and who wouldn't, and that the warning would not change anything.

The Narrator — narrator; a person from the future who sends a warning about the Predictor and its effects; knowledgeable, concerned.

The reality isn’t important: what’s important is your belief, and believing the lie is the only way to avoid a waking coma.

The sender sent the warning because they had no choice.