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The Story of Your Life

·4 mins

Story of your life is a short story set in an alternate contemporary world where aliens land on Earth.

Point of view is worth 80 IQ points

This is quote widely attributed to Alan Kay. I heard this sometime back and it resonates with me. How many times have I wondered about a problem long enough and hard enough and gave up in the end, only to find the solution when thinking about another thing diametrically opposite? As far as I know, there isn’t a framework general enough to systematize problem solving. [Arthur Koestler] ( thought that the problem and its solution existed in orthogonal planes, and their intersection is the germination of creativity - a bisociation. Thomas Kuhn in his Structure of Scientific Revolutions points out that anomalies and red-herrings accelerated Human Understanding more than the systematic cause and effect linear thinking.

We know that the context affects our approach to problem solving. A singular point-of-view, a fine approach lets us see the solution plain and clear. Our reach and our grasp become the same. We arrive at a solution with tunnel-vision-like clarity and flow. It is the same relief we get when we solve a hard problem in Mechanics by a Lagrangian or Hamiltonian and not from the systematic application of Newtonian calculus. It is the same relief when we understand the code well enough and abandon cruft, Archimedes’ Eureka moment.

These thoughts strafed me as I read Ted Chiang’s excellent short story - The Story of My Life. In the story a linguist is summoned to decipher an Alien language signaled by an Alien Form which has landed on Earth. During the story we understand that their language is specifically evolved to understand time’s trajectory. Just as we have domain specific vocabulary to understand, interpret and act, the aliens developed the language which appears to be a domain Specific language for Time travel (or Time’s trajectory). A person who understood the language could predict the future.

An outstanding achievement of this story is pointing out that cause and effect reasoning might be one of the tools to understand causality or entropy or time’s arrow, but theoretically there might be other ways to interpret and may be predict future events. Variational principle in physics states that natural phenomenon attain an equilibrium which is a global minimum or a maximum along any state space. A ray of light bends when crossing surfaces - what we call refraction taking the path of least time. The surface tension on a water droplet causes it to be a sphere a structure minimum surface area for a given volume. My interpretation of the story is that the aliens have discovered a path function which minimizes entropy along the global state space of our existence and have developed a domain specific language to systematize it.

I am blown away again. Ted Chiang is a master story teller, a virtuoso. A bit of pondering and a thought hits me - What to we do in Machine learning or Predictive Analytics. Most Machine Learning Software fit the data to a pattern by minimizing an error function. This error function (or L2 Norm) is an anomaly in our pattern. The optimization software minimizes it over our pattern function. Several of these algorithms can predict events with high degree of accuracy. Coincidence? May be.

And then there’s the question of free will - classic Ted Chiang motif. With these systematized preordained life trajectories, are we responsible for our actions? If we were to discover and learn the future and preordained life trajectories, how will our society’s Law, Morality, Religion, Politics, Economics change? Are criminals responsible for their crimes? Is there anything morally deplorable? What about God? What should be mode of production? Are demand and supply predestined?

P.S. I saw the movie based on the short story and found it underwhelming. Arrival is a 2016 movie based on the short story. Arrival is only loosely based on the story. It goes astray and loses the plot about the Points of view and free will. To the movie’s credit, I found the visuals appealing and like the way they interpreted the Heptapod language. The Ensō like Heptapod symbols looked aesthetically pleasing. The written word is better.

I heart Ted Chiang.