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Will Big Data Make Free Will Irrelevant?

What does it mean when Big Data can make a prediction that someone has a high likelihood of committing a crime? Should the criminal justice system intervene?

In Crime and Punishment, the Russian student Raskolnikov kills a pawnbroker to test his Nietzschean hypothesis that certain people transcend morality and therefore have the right to commit murder. 


In Albert Camus's novel, The Stranger, Meursault confiscates a revolver from his friend Raymond with the ostensible purpose of preventing Raymond from doing anything impulsive with the weapon. Meursault then proceeds to shoot an Arab man, seemingly without motive or emotion.

It would be an interesting test for a smart computer to read these two novels and recommend a possible intervention in each case. Raskolnikov's premeditated murder would be relatively easy to predict, as Dostoevsky's antihero plans every aspect of his crime over many pages. A very sophisticated algorithm, on the other hand, would be required to detect Meursault's lack of empathy and judge his predilection for murder accordingly. 

Of course, Raskolnikov and Meursault are fictional characters, but these scenarios are far from absurd. After all, Big Data is emerging as a powerful tool for law enforcement, one that might be utilized not only to solve crimes but to prevent them in the first place. 

In the video below, Kenneth Cukier, the data editor of The Economist, considers the implications of Big Data's ability to predict whether someone has a high likelihood of committing a crime. "If I could tell with a 98 percent statistical accuracy that you are likely to shoplift in the next 12 months," Cukier tells Big Think, "public safety requires that I interact."

So what does this interaction mean? Typically you have to commit a crime before you are penalized for that crime, Cukier points out. However, maybe Raskolnikov gets a knock at his door. It's a social worker arriving to offer services. "We’d like to help you."

Of course, this kind of intervention has its costs. Raskolnikov would become stigmatized in the eyes of his peers, or his school teachers. And after all, he hasn't done anything wrong yet. Data analysis might tell us that he is likely to kill, but doesn't he still have free will?

Watch the video here:

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

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