Ted Chiang short story in StarShipSofa's Aural Delights podcast #37


I'm a devoted listener of StarShipSofa's Aural Delights science fiction podcast. The most recent episode (No. 37) has a short story by Ted Chiang called "What’s Expected Of Us," and I think it's comparable to the work of Jorge Luis Borges.

"What’s Expected Of Us" is about what happens after the introduction of a little toy called The Predictor. It looks like a car-door remote. It has one button and one LED. It does one thing, and one thing only: without fail, its LED flashes precisely one second before you push the button.

Chiang's exploration of the consequences of such a gadget packs the same kind of philosophical wallop that makes The Mind's I (Hofstadter and Dennett) one of the most mind-altering books I've ever read.

Cory gave me a copy of Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others, a thought-provoking collection of short fiction.

Starship Sofa Aural Delights


  1. Stories of Your Life stands as one of the greatest sci-fi shorts in my mind. I re-read it every year or so!

  2. Ted Chiang just won a Best Novelette Hugo Award for “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.” The story also won a Nebula Award. It was available on the The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction’s website, but not anymore. Figure out a way to read it, folks, because it is wonderful.

  3. IANAQuantum theorist, but: Given that we know that even ideal measurements of quantum objects will never be fully predictable, isn’t determinism incompatible with today’s scientific knowledge? This principle means that the Predictor in the story could never actually exist, am I right?

  4. Interestingly, a kind of limited version of “The Predictor” actually exists! Benamin Libet did an experiment where he had people push a button when they wanted to advance the slide on a projector. He also monitored their brains and saw that, reliably, 300 milliseconds before they pushed, there was a certain spike in brain activity in some region. He then connected the projector advancement mechanism to the device measuring brain activity, and disconnected the button people were pressing. The subjects then reported the eerie feeling that the projector was advancing *just before* they decided to push the button – predicting their will before they knew it.

    Could the feeling of “free will” really just be the ability to roughly predict, and subsequently endorse, the actions your body takes on its own?

  5. Beat me to this, #9. I was going to comment on this very same research.

    Also, Chiang’s “Understand” is hauntingly wonderful. A true treat to read (and the reason I bought Stories of You Life and Others). Every other story in that book, though, was each worth the price of the book. A must read.

    Can’t wait to hear this latest work!

  6. @Pete Carlton: Perhaps the behavior of the experiment’s subjects should be monitored…

    @Church: Thanks for the link to the reading. I preferred the text version, but a magnificent story either way.

  7. 9: “the ability to roughly predict, and subsequently endorse, the actions your body takes on its own?

    “On its own” as opposed to… what? Guided by a supernatural soul?

    I say that with no disdain for that idea. I’m just asking. And trying to point out that (unless you have a dualist (body+soul) view of the self) we are just naturalistic systems, and the concepts of “I” and “want” are useful but incomplete models. Our bodies (and the neurons they carry and sustain) do everything “on their own”, such as the processes experienced as consciousness, desires, decisions, memories, etc.

    And yes, I can be counted on to post a pro-reductionist comment whenever this sort of thing comes up ;)

  8. Collect a Predictor, a gun, a motor to squeeze the gun’s trigger, and a light detector that will turn the motor on when it sees the Predictor light up.

    Tape the Predictor to a table. Put the gun next to it, and point it at the Predictor. You’d better tape the gun down as well; wouldn’t want it to miss.

    Put the light detector in position to see the light turn on.

    Now push the button on the Predictor.

    What happens?

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