Nature Future Conditional

The story behind the story: VTE

In this week’s Futures story, S. R. Algernon makes a welcome return to discuss the pitfalls of scientific progress with VTE. Regular readers will undoubtedly have read some of S. R. Algernon’s other pieces for Futures (there’s a full list at the foot of this post). You can catch up with his latest work at his website or by following him on Twitter. Here, he reveals what inspired his latest tale — as ever, it pays to read the story first.

Writing VTE

The inspiration for VTE came when I noticed a conceptual similarity between the ‘vicarious trial and error’ experiments (done by Muenzinger in 1938 and discussed in Tolmans’s influential 1948 paper on cognitive maps1), the double-slit experiments (such as Taylor, 1909)2 and the more famous Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment from 19353. It occurred to me that each allowed an entity to pursue both paths at a decision point. What if, I wondered, quantum computing could allow people (and rats) to learn from all possible outcomes of an action by somehow yoking their outcomes to a quantum event?

I confess that I am not a physicist and that what I propose in VTE might be utter fantasy. However, I think the metaphor itself is compelling. Who among us wouldn’t want to be able to feel regret or loss at the point of a major life decision, when there is still time to choose a different path? I decided to set the story at a scientific conference because it was an appropriate place for characters to explain scientific theories. I introduced the poisoning to provide a concrete threat, inspired by some of the horrifying real-world incidents of poisoning in recent years.

This story owes a debt to many other ‘many worlds’ stories, in particular Sarah Pinsker’s And Then There Were (N-One)4 and Ten Sigmas by Paul Melko5. I like to think that my story draws from the scientific literature in a different way than the earlier works, but VTE undoubtedly stands on the shoulder of literary and scientific giants.

1. Tolman, E. C. Psychol. Rev. 55, 189–208 (1948). Article

2. Taylor, G. I. Proc. Camb. Philos. Soc. 15, 114-115 (1909). Article

3. Schrödinger, E. Naturwissenschaften 23, 823–828 (1935). Article

4. Pinsker, S. ‘And Then There Were (N-One)’ Uncanny Magazine (2017). Article

5. Melko, P. ‘Ten Sigmas’ in Ten Sigmas and Other Unlikelihoods (Fairwood Press, 2008).

Other Futures stories by S. R. Algernon

A time for peace | Planetary defences | Cargo cult | A pocket full of phlogiston | The chains of plenty | Asymmetrical warfare | In a new light | One slow step for man | Genius loci | Legacy admissions | In Cygnus and in Hell | The palimpsest planet | e-PLURIBUS | Home Cygnus


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