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The Limits of Predictability

Stephen L. Talbott

This chapter is part of a work in progress and is subject to continual revision. Date of last revision: January 6, 2004. The chapter was originally published in NetFuture #153. Copyright 2004 The Nature Institute. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter for noncommercial purposes only.


Predictability is comforting, and we humans seem to crave it. This is why superstition, with its promise of predictable control, has long bedeviled our race. Moreover, our desire for control has, in the mechanical sphere, borne fruit. The digital machines of our own era seem a genuine fulfillment of the superstitious hope, designed as they are to accomplish well-defined tasks with high reliability.

When I throw a rock at a tree trunk, I may or may not hit it; but when I dial the number of a friend, I don't waste much energy worrying that an incorrect phone will ring. Instead of crossing myself three times before dialing, I place well-justified trust in the predictable performance of the technology. (Users of Microsoft Windows software, however, may be forgiven t