Anyone watching the TV show Devs?

  • #1
It's a sci-fi miniseries created by Alex Garland (the same guy who made Ex Machina, Annihilation, 28 Days Later and a few other movies) that premiered on Hulu a month or so back. One of the shows main premise revolves around this secret quantum computing technology that can make extremely accurate projections about anything in the world (such as looking directly at past events, such as historical figures, to cavemen, to even dinosaurs).

Curious if anyone here is watching it or has watched it, and what you think of it.
 

Answers and Replies

  • #2
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Haven't seen it yet. Hopefully, it will be available for streaming from other platforms too or appear on network TV sometime. There are too many streaming services to join which is good and bad. Good because of the variety of competing content better often than network TV and bad because they all cost too much in aggregate.

I found this WIkipedia description:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devs_(miniseries)

and this Youtube from the creator:

 
  • #3
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Curious if anyone here is watching it or has watched it, and what you think of it.
Just binged it from a streaming service. Fantastic show, I thought. Edge of my seat. The graphics, music production, architecture, all fantastic. Worked as a crime thriller also.

Also a great deal of interesting philosophical speculation on various interpretations of quantum physics. The Many Worlds interpretation becomes central to the whole plot.

But there are a couple of points I would comment on (warning, contains spoilers). One of the major philosophical themes is Forest's adamant belief in determinism, that everything 'runs on tram rails' and that whatever is going to happen is a result of previous causes, with no exceptions. His whole gizmo is predicated on this being true, and he objects violently to the suggestion of embedding an MWI-inspired algorithm in the system (to the extent of firing the brilliant young engineer who deploys it on the spot).

So along those lines, in Episode 7 Katie asks Lily to name one thing for which there isn't a cause. 'Being struck by lightning' or 'child gets leukemia' were two of the responses. These were quickly dismissed by Katie as they obviously have causes (even though they seem random). But there was an obvious question that Lily should have asked Katie, as they're all so deeply involved in quantum philosophy: 'what caused Albert Einstein to often say that "God does not play dice with the Universe"?' Because I think that suggests that randomness is a factor at a very fundamental level of atomic theory. This has been much discussed in the decades since but it never seems to be considered by the script. I think it's a hole in the story, albeit one that not many would notice.

The second point concerns the grand finale. Forest and Lily have apparently been reborn into the system, where, Forest tells her, she can 'go ahead and live the life she wants'. The question I have is, what is that Lily and that Forest made from? Are they flesh and blood, or are they pixels? And if they're flesh and blood, where or how is all that matter created, and by what? Conversely, if they're pixels, then how are they subjects of experience? I know the premise of the show is to ask just these kinds of questions, and it does it brilliantly, but if you think it through, the grand finale is really a preposterous idea.
 
  • #4
BillTre
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Thanks for the very nice description. It has probably motivated me to see it.

However, I disagree that Einstein saying some phrase many times (probably to convey a similar meaning in some way), shows a randomness in how things in the universe happen in general (determined or not).
There are many possible, non-random physiological explanations for something like this.
I would argue (personal view) that the apparent randomness of human behavior is the result of unobserved, highly detailed molecular functioning of neurons with very complex interactions.
Both speech and psychology would arise from the extremely complex neural interactions.

Small changes (in neuronal function) could have big effects (on the collective functioning of large groups of neurons). A cosmic ray coming in and hitting a calcium channel, at some important part of a neuron, at an important location within a neural network, would be highly unlikely to be observed. The cosmic ray could be considered random, but (to me) the resultant behavior, due to the molecular damage, in the neural net, would be deterministic (assuming a perfect knowledge of the molecules involved.

Deterministic, but due to the complexity of the situation, unobservable and uncalculable (without technical advances).

It seems highly unlikely to me that Einstein's phrase was triggered but such random events (cosmic rays).
He had some internal functional brain state (very complex), underlying the production of the behavior.
He also probably had a related functional brain state underlying his having thoughts on the subject.
 
  • #5
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I disagree that Einstein saying some phrase many times (probably to convey a similar meaning in some way), shows a randomness in how things in the universe happen in general (determined or not).
Well, the motivation behind that expression of his, 'God does not play dice', was the discovery of the stochastic nature of predictability in quantum mechanics. When I say, he said it many times, what I meant was it was a belief he maintained all his life, it was central to his objection to the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics.

Jim Baggott has a nice Aeon article on the subject here. The article observes:
Einstein’s God is infinitely superior but impersonal and intangible, subtle but not malicious. He is also firmly determinist. As far as Einstein was concerned, God’s ‘lawful harmony’ is established throughout the cosmos by strict adherence to the physical principles of cause and effect. Thus, there is no room in Einstein’s philosophy for free will: ‘Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control … we all dance to a mysterious tune, intoned in the distance by an invisible player.’
...which is exactly what the character Forest articulates in Devs. The article then goes on to say in respect of Bohr and Heisenberg's 'Copenhagen intepretation' that
Einstein could not accept an interpretation in which the principal object of the representation – the wavefunction – is not ‘real’. He could not accept that his God would allow the ‘lawful harmony’ to unravel so completely at the atomic scale, bringing lawless indeterminism and uncertainty, with effects that can’t be entirely and unambiguously predicted from their causes.

So, I think this objection of Einstein's is a sound defeater for Forest's insistence on deteminism - because despite Einstein's later protestations, the stochastic nature of quantum measurement has been established beyond reasonable doubt. An alternative is Everett's many-worlds hypothesis, which preserved determinism at the cost of infinite, splitting universes. (The character Katie dismisses the Copenhagen interpretation contemptuously in the show, calling it 'dualism' with an expression of disgust.)

But I think that nowadays it is largely agreed that at a fundamental level, there's an element of pure chance at work at the atomic level - something which strict determinism, whether Spinoza's, Einstein's, or 'Forest's' - can't accomodate. That God does, in fact, play dice. (Maybe it provides him with an element of surprise!)
 
  • #6
BillTre
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I don't see how that just because Einstein was maybe stubborn about something of importance to physics, it has some relevance to determinism in the world at large.
They seem to me to be two separate things, Einstein's psychology and whatever might be right wrt determinism.
Whatever Einstein's opinion in it is (which you seem to think is wrong), it should not have any impact on the validity of determinism.
Maybe I'm missing some connection here.
 
  • #7
Bandersnatch
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I don't see how that just because Einstein was maybe stubborn about something of importance to physics, it has some relevance to determinism in the world at large.
The anecdote is not asking you to accept some argument from authority. It's making the point that physics is inherently random at the quantum level, which had famously caused Einstein some philosophical grief. So if asked what is 'one random thing in the world' or some such question, an obvious answer seems to be 'that thing in physics Einstein famously couldn't wrap his philosophical view around'. Another way of putting it, without ever mentioning Einstein, would be to answer the question with: 'the radioactive decay of an atom at the particular moment it splits', or 'an instance of a tunnelling of a potential barrier'.


The trailer looks intriguing, and the clout behind the production is promising. Thanks for the recommendation, AndromedaRXJ (though it's been over a year now).
I've got to say. I can't help but hear Ron Swanson talking.
 
  • #8
BillTre
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I see the point about the randomness of certain quantum phenomena.
I can understand how Einstein's thoughts might draw attention to the issue.
Who cares what Einstein thought about this.
Maybe it some irony I am not appreciating.

Yeah. Nevertheless hte show dealing with issues like this sounds interesting.
 
  • #9
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Maybe it some irony I am not appreciating.
It's not a matter of irony. Determinism of the kind Forest is advocating is all or nothing. Everything is determined by prior causes. There's no wriggle room.

In the 18th Century, LaPlace said 'We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.'

This is exactly what the system in Devs was supposed to be able to do. It was predicated on this possibility. But Heisenberg's uncertainty principle showed this could never happen, because it is impossible to know all of the attributes of sub-atomic particles at once. The fundamental reality is undetermined in some basic sense. It's a distribution of probabilities, not an unalterable causal chain. Therefore determinism is false.

The interesting thing is, the script ends up seeming to support the many-worlds interpretation. I think that is the only sense in which determinism can be preserved - by envisaging infinite worlds in which every possible outcome actually happens. (Forest makes a remark that suggests this.) This preserves determinism, but it introduces quite an overhead. The finale of the show suggests that Forest and Lily are actually re-created in some possible world. But meanwhile Catie, back in the 'control room', is showing a visage of them cavorting in a field, and pleading with a politician who is reviewing the project to be able to keep the system running. Presumably, if it powers down, then MWI Forest and MWI Lily will no longer be sustained - which shows that they can't really be considered as living beings and weren't really re-born in the Eleysian field of VR after all.
 
  • #10
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It's not a matter of irony. Determinism of the kind Forest is advocating is all or nothing. Everything is determined by prior causes. There's no wriggle room.

In the 18th Century, LaPlace said 'We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future. An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.'

This is exactly what the system in Devs was supposed to be able to do. It was predicated on this possibility. But Heisenberg's uncertainty principle showed this could never happen, because it is impossible to know all of the attributes of sub-atomic particles at once. The fundamental reality is undetermined in some basic sense. It's a distribution of probabilities, not an unalterable causal chain. Therefore determinism is false.

The interesting thing is, the script ends up seeming to support the many-worlds interpretation. I think that is the only sense in which determinism can be preserved - by envisaging infinite worlds in which every possible outcome actually happens. (Forest makes a remark that suggests this.) This preserves determinism, but it introduces quite an overhead. The finale of the show suggests that Forest and Lily are actually re-created in some possible world. But meanwhile Catie, back in the 'control room', is showing a visage of them cavorting in a field, and pleading with a politician who is reviewing the project to be able to keep the system running. Presumably, if it powers down, then MWI Forest and MWI Lily will no longer be sustained - which shows that they can't really be considered as living beings and weren't really re-born in the Eleysian field of VR after all.

I'm not sure what is the situation now (experiments have since verified Bell's theorem, as well as the Wigner's friend conundrum on a small scale).

Bell's theorem proves that quantum physics is incompatible with certain types of local hidden-variable theories. It was introduced by physicist John Stewart Bell in a 1964 paper titled "On the Einstein Podolsky Rosen Paradox", referring to a 1935 thought experiment that Albert Einstein, Boris Podolsky and Nathan Rosen used in order to argue that quantum physics is an "incomplete" theory.[1][2] By 1935, it was already recognized that the predictions of quantum physics are probabilistic. Einstein, Podolsky and Rosen presented a scenario that, in their view, indicated that quantum particles, like electrons and photons, must carry physical properties or attributes not included in quantum theory, and the uncertainties in quantum theory's predictions were due to ignorance of these properties, later termed "hidden variables". Their scenario involves a pair of widely separated physical objects, prepared in such a way that the quantum state of the pair is entangled.

Bell carried the analysis of quantum entanglement much further. He deduced that if measurements are performed independently on the two separated halves of a pair, then the assumption that the outcomes depend upon hidden variables within each half implies a constraint on how the outcomes on the two halves are correlated. This constraint would later be named the Bell inequality. Bell then showed that quantum physics predicts correlations that violate this inequality. Consequently, the only way that hidden variables could explain the predictions of quantum physics is if they violate one of the assumptions of the theorem or are "nonlocal", somehow associated with both halves of the pair and able to carry influences instantly between them no matter how widely the two halves are separated.[3][4] As Bell wrote later, "If [a hidden-variable theory] is local it will not agree with quantum mechanics, and if it agrees with quantum mechanics it will not be local."[5]
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bell's_theorem

Recent paper on Wigner's friend conundrum:

Wigner can even perform an experiment to determine whether this superposition exists or not. This is a kind of interference experiment showing that the photon and the measurement are indeed in a superposition.

From Wigner’s point of view, this is a “fact”—the superposition exists. And this fact suggests that a measurement cannot have taken place.

But this is in stark contrast to the point of view of the friend, who has indeed measured the photon’s polarization and recorded it. The friend can even call Wigner and say the measurement has been done (provided the outcome is not revealed).

So the two realities are at odds with each other. “This calls into question the objective status of the facts established by the two observers,” say Proietti and co.

That’s the theory, but last year Caslav Brukner, at the University of Vienna in Austria, came up with a way to re-create the Wigner’s Friend experiment in the lab by means of techniques involving the entanglement of many particles at the same time.

https://www.technologyreview.com/20...ts-theres-no-such-thing-as-objective-reality/

In 2020, this paper came out, further shedding light on these issues:

Does quantum theory apply at all scales, in-
cluding that of observers? A resurgence of inter-
est in the long-standing Wigner’s friend paradox
has shed new light on this fundamental question.
Here—building on a scenario with two separated
but entangled “friends” introduced by Brukner—
we rigorously prove that if quantum evolution
is controllable on the scale of an observer, then
one of the following three assumptions must be
false: “No-Superdeterminism”, “Locality”, or
“Absoluteness of Observed Events”(i.e. that
every observed event exists absolutely, not rela-
tively).
We show that although the violation of
Bell-type inequalities in such scenarios is not in
general sufficient to demonstrate the contradic-
tion between those assumptions, new inequalities
can be derived, in a theory-independent manner,
which are violated by quantum correlations. We
demonstrate this in a proof-of-principle experi-
ment where a photon’s path is deemed an ob-
server. We discuss how this new theorem places
strictly stronger constraints on quantum reality
than Bell’s theorem.

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41567-020-0990-x
https://arxiv.org/pdf/1907.05607.pdf

But related to your question, Hermann's view might still be relevant:

Hermann distinguished between
causality and predictability and emphasized the fact that they are not identical; she stated
that “The fact that quantum mechanics assumes and pursues a causal account also for
unpredictable occurrences proves that an identification of these two concepts is based on
a confusion” (Hermann, quoted in Jammer, p. 209; Lenzen). This allows for the
possibility that physical processes may be strictly determined even though exact
prediction is not possible (Lenzen).


Grete Hermann showed that causality was retained in the sense that after an interaction,
causes could be assigned for a particular effect. Von Weizsäcker expressed Hermann’s
conclusion by the statement that the persistence of classical laws can be applied to assign
causes of past events but not to future events (Lenzen, p. 282)

Heisenberg seems to have approved of Grete Hermann’s resolution of this dilemma; she
quoted him as saying to her “That’s it, what we were trying so long to clarify!” (Hermann
letter quoted in Jammer, p. 208). However, Hermann’s claim of retrodictive causality has
been criticized by several authors, including Jammer, Stauss, and Buchel (Jammer, p.
209). Jammer regards her analysis of the von Weiszäcker-Heisenberg thought experiment
as allowing the observed result without requiring it (Jammer, p. 209).


Hermann’s views seem to emphasize the asymmetry between explanation and prediction
in quantum mechanics as opposed to their symmetry in classical physics. This analysis
was subsequently extended by others, including Norwood Russell Hanson, who appears
to have emphasized that after a quantum event has occurred, a complete explanation of its
occurrence can be given within the total quantum theory, but that it is in principle
impossible to predict in advance those features of the event that can be explained after the
fact (Jammer, p. 209).



Von Weizsäcker has described Grete Hermann’s contributions as including clarifying that
the impossibility of making certain predictions is not based on the fact that a causal chain
investigated turns out to be interrupted somewhere, but rather on the fact that the
different causal chains cannot be organized to form a unified picture embracing all
aspects of the process, so that it remains to the choice of the observer which of the
different causal chains is realized (Mehra, Vol. 6, part 2, p. 713).


Here is Grete Hermann’s phrasing of it: “The difficulties in which the partisans of
causality are placed by the discoveries of quantum mechanics, seem...not to arise from
the causality principle itself. They rather emerge from the tacit assumption connected
with it that the physical cognition grasps natural phenomena adequately and
independently of the observational connection. This assumption is expressed in the
prerequisite that every causal connection between processes yields a calculable action
due to the cause, even more, that the causal connection is identical with the possibility of
such a calculation.” She added: “Quantum mechanics forces us to dissolve this mixing of
different principles of natural philosophy, to drop the assumption of the absolute
character of the cognition of nature, and to use the causal principle independently of the

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latter. By no means has it disproved causal law, but it has clarified its status and freed it
from other principles which must not be combined with it necessarily.” (quoted in Mehra,
Vol. 6, part 2, p. 713

https://www.europeanwomeninmaths.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/gretehermann.pdf

This article about how Einstein was wrongly framed as having completely lost the debate, is worth a read too. Von Neumann's hidden variable impossibility proof was wrong, but it took many years for people to take notice. It was actually Grete Hermann who first pointed that out in the 30's, but nobody took notice, until Bell rediscovered the flaw later on, and now we know hidden variables could be possible, just not local ones I guess.

But what if a field picks the wrong paradigm? Becker shows how, in the 1950s and 1960s, a handful of physicists dusted off the theories of Einstein and de Broglie and turned them into a fully fledged interpretation capable of shaking up the status quo. David Bohm argued that particles in quantum systems existed whether observed or not, and that they have predictable positions and motions determined by pilot waves. John Bell then showed that Einstein’s concerns about locality and incompleteness in the Copenhagen interpretation were valid. It was he who refuted von Neumann’s proof by revealing that it ruled out only a narrow class of hidden-variables theories.

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-03793-2
 
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  • #11
PeroK
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Forget Einstein and Bohr, the show's major failing was to imagine that a multi-billion dollar enterprise could be secured by a single ageing, overweight security guard.
 
  • #12
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679
I've watched most of the show now. The thing I don't understand is why they think they know their one specific future, when their prediction algorithm selects a random possible future out of everything that can possibly happen?
 
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  • #13
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I've watched most of the show now. The thing I don't understand is why they think they know their one specific future, when their prediction algorithm selects a random possible future out of everything that can possibly happen?
that's one of the confusions inherent in the story. It might be intentionally confusing, to reflect the confusion that is inherent in various intepretations of physics, like that between the Copenhagen interpretation and the many-worlds intepretation. Notice that the young female engineer was fired (can't recall her name) when she used the many-worlds interpretation to produce a crystal-clear image; Forest made a speech about the evils of leveraging that idea. But the idea of many worlds is mentioned again, i.e. in the retro scene where Katie storms out of the lecture theatre.

So there's perhaps a degree of intentional ambiguity.
 
  • #14
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679
that's one of the confusions inherent in the story. It might be intentionally confusing, to reflect the confusion that is inherent in various intepretations of physics, like that between the Copenhagen interpretation and the many-worlds intepretation. Notice that the young female engineer was fired (can't recall her name) when she used the many-worlds interpretation to produce a crystal-clear image; Forest made a speech about the evils of leveraging that idea. But the idea of many worlds is mentioned again, i.e. in the retro scene where Katie storms out of the lecture theatre.

So there's perhaps a degree of intentional ambiguity.

I think you're probably right. But also I think Garland was probably utilizing that ambiguity in order to make the story work. Forest was "putting himself on trial" as it was explained, in that if the universe were deterministic, then the accident he caused was unavoidable, but if he has free will, then he is to blame. At the same time, he wants to recreate his daughter exactly as she was, so he doesn't want to believe the universe is deterministic in the Many Worlds sense. So he wants to believe the future is both determined and unique. Lyndon was able to get the simulation to produce crystal clear projections by refactoring the simulation to follow principles from the Many Worlds interpretation, and it was assumed this proved that Many Worlds was correct and Forest was just in denial. However, that might not be true either. We are left to wonder I guess whether it was Many Worlds, or Penrose which was actually correct. Note that Katie walked out of the lecture in disagreement about Penrose's interpretation and the possible role of consciousness in collapse. So I think Garland wanted us to wonder about that in the end. And also note that Katie and Forest had an undisclosed epiphany in the end, and it doesn't make sense that MW would be that epiphany.


Further, there is the bit about Devs really being Deus, which the name of a god. And also note that the Deus was unable to see past the moment when it was destroyed. It could possibly be interpreted that Deus can only see future that it is part of. I'll have to watch again to see if there was anything else to draw from.

As a side note, there is an interesting interview with Garland on Youtube.

 

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