Asimov's Psychohistory: Possible on a sufficiently large scale?

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Main Question or Discussion Point

As we all learned a long time ago, the trajectories of individual air molecules can't be predicted, but the behavior of macroscopic air masses can be predicted--if imperfectly, as with weather forecasts.

Similarly, the behavior of human individuals isn't always predictable. The less well we know the individual in question, the lousier our predictions will be. Even with billions of people on Earth, we can't predict the course of history.

When Isaac Asimov referenced "psychohistory," he was referring to a fictitious discipline that would enable Humanity to literally predict the course of history. Some unusual factor, like the arrival of a mutant human who could control other people's emotions by act of will, could foil the predictions, but otherwise it works pretty well in the relevant Asimov novels.

There can be no such thing as psychohistory on Earth. But Asimov's galactic civilization comprises literal quintillions of humans spread out across the galaxy. With such a huge number of humans, could there be a discipline that could predict human history in a similarly populous galaxy united by FTL?
 

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  • #2
phinds
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could predict human history in a similarly populous galaxy
HIGHTLY unlikely
united by FTL?
now you're back into pure sci fic. If you are asking about the real world you should stay inside the realm of science.
 
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Psychohistory doesn't leave much room for innovative science.
 
  • #4
BWV
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Is next week's weather predictable? That is just the interaction of air, water and sunlight
 
  • #5
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Is next week's weather predictable? That is just the interaction of air, water and sunlight
Maybe, maybe not but, if there's a few million identical'ish worlds with the same climate, then it's not difficult to predict the average.
 
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  • #6
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But Asimov's galactic civilization comprises literal quintillions of humans spread out across the galaxy. With such a huge number of humans, could there be a discipline that could predict human history in a similarly populous galaxy united by FTL?
The size of the population doesn't really help. Any novel event messes with a psychohistory concept, as covid-19 is showing. The model - no matter how sophisticated or well informed by statistical methods - can only work with what it knows or can reasonably predict. And FTL would probably act like aircraft have with covid-19, too, by allowing an event to outrun local containment methods.

Even Asimov seemed to understand the limits of his approach, as the Ebling Mis character added two axioms to the theory:
  1. That there would be no fundamental change in the society;
  2. That human reactions to stimuli would remain constant.
Essentially, Kirk Borne's 'unknown unknowns' undermine the effectiveness of psychohistory-like methods.
 
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  • #7
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HIGHTLY unlikely now you're back into pure sci fic. If you are asking about the real world you should stay inside the realm of science.
The FTL was Asimov's. As for my question, why is it highly unlikely?
 
  • #8
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Is next week's weather predictable? That is just the interaction of air, water and sunlight
The weather a week from now is not AS predictable as tomorrow's weather, but 5-day forecasts are still better than chance alone would predict.
 
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Psychohistory doesn't leave much room for innovative science.
Now that you mention it, unexpected scientific innovations could produce many "Mules"--many events that no discipline could foresee. e.g. the manufacture of AB matter on a commercial scale.
 
  • #10
phinds
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The FTL was Asimov's.
I don't care WHO it is from, the question is, are you talking about science or science fiction? Apparently I misunderstood when I thought you were talking about science.
As for my question, why is it highly unlikely?
You have this backwards. If you contend that something is likely, you need to provide evidence or at least a good solid argument as to WHY you think it is likely. Asking someone to prove a negative is not the way science works and not the way this forum works.
 
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I don't care WHO it is from, the question is, are you talking about science or science fiction?
Was the OP perhaps moved from another forum? It does belong here, this is 100% science fiction!

As for my question, why is it highly unlikely?
For the reasons noted. Predictive models are sensitive to novel events and society is replete with novel events.

Think about Asimov's dominion as described in his Foundation novels. Trillions of people! Even assuming the 'static' society Asimov suggested, do you think it is feasible for psychohistory to accommodate all the permutations of actions and outcomes to predict anything useful across such a large population spread over hundreds or even thousands of planets?

Psychohistory came from a time when technology - and science by implication - was shiny and golden. The chaotic nature of systems was only just being realized but most commonly it was assumed that given enough computers / data, you could create a perfect model of anything, including society. I'd say psychohistory is impossible, not just 'highly unlikely'.
 
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  • #12
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The weather a week from now is not AS predictable as tomorrow's weather, but 5-day forecasts are still better than chance alone would predict.
but at 10 days and beyond, the weather is unpredictable.
 
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  • #13
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but at 10 days and beyond, the weather is unpredictable.
But, the season is usually predictable.
 
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phinds
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  • #16
DaveC426913
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...Asimov's galactic civilization comprises literal quintillions of humans spread out across the galaxy. With such a huge number of humans, could there be a discipline that could predict human history in a similarly populous galaxy united by FTL?
You should be sure to factor in that - as you multiply the number of humans in the population - you also multiply the variables.

Sure, 7 billion humans can't get into as much trouble as 7 quintillion humans - but that has just as much to do with the fact that they're all within 20,000 kilometres of each other on the same rock. Give them a billion planets in a billion galaxies to roam around on, and suddenly there's a lot more wiggle room in human behavior.

How do you factor in humans becoming cyborg, relativistically-dilated (as a life style choice), virtual, immortal, transcendent, full native alien, etc.?
 
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  • #17
Klystron
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As we all learned a long time ago, the trajectories of individual air molecules can't be predicted, but the behavior of macroscopic air masses can be predicted--if imperfectly, as with weather forecasts.

Similarly, the behavior of human individuals isn't always predictable. The less well we know the individual in question, the lousier our predictions will be. Even with billions of people on Earth, we can't predict the course of history.

When Isaac Asimov referenced "psychohistory," he was referring to a fictitious discipline that would enable Humanity to literally predict the course of history. Some unusual factor, like the arrival of a mutant human who could control other people's emotions by act of will, could foil the predictions, but otherwise it works pretty well in the relevant Asimov novels.

There can be no such thing as psychohistory on Earth. But Asimov's galactic civilization comprises literal quintillions of humans spread out across the galaxy. With such a huge number of humans, could there be a discipline that could predict human history in a similarly populous galaxy united by FTL?
I read Asimov's "Foundation" series too long ago to comment on characters and details but as an author Asimov loved to create elaborate systems then pick them apart and expose the inherent fallacies and contradictions.

Consider Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics". Credit Asimov's ability as an author that many SF writers take the Three Laws as axiomatic when describing robotic futures. The smallest dose of reality contradicts the entire notion. The real problem is not how to get a robot to violate the Laws in order to harm a human but the almost impossible task of programming artificial intelligence to ever come close to observing such strictures on robotic behaviour and activities.

Ignoring his postulated "positronic brains" as a new technology, how does Dr. Susan implement the Three Laws into any artificial intelligence? Do robotic welders on an assembly line observe the Laws? The running joke concerning self-driving automobiles is not that the "brains" are afraid of damaging fragile humans but rather mowing down everything in their path with impunity.

As with psycho-history, FTL galactic travel and communication, and telepathic empathic mutants, Isaac Asimov delights in drawing the reader into fanciful realms only to poke holes at naive acceptance of impossible situations. We would criticize a lesser writer for postulating easily disproved 'straw man' arguments. Asimov wrote so well on so many different topics that readers learn to look for the lessons in his fables.

If the OP wants a modern analog to "Foundation" technology, look to financial markets particularly 'technical software' packages that combine relevant data streams to track market indicators. The sheer number of investors lead to a virtual "psychological history" with the ever present warning "past performance does not guarantee future results".
 
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  • #18
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I don't care WHO it is from, the question is, are you talking about science or science fiction? Apparently I misunderstood when I thought you were talking about science.
Since this thread is on "Science Fiction and Fantasy Media," you might have known the answer.
You have this backwards. If you contend that something is likely, you need to provide evidence or at least a good solid argument as to WHY you think it is likely. Asking someone to prove a negative is not the way science works and not the way this forum works.
Let me answer your points in backwards order.

First, calling something unlikely is not a negative statement. To say "X is unlikely" and "X is likely" is, in both cases, to affirm some property about X. What is more, likeliness and unlikeliness are not the only two alternatives. Likelihood is a continuum. Between "likely" and "unlikely" there lie such categories as "50/50 chance," "possible," "a long shot, but we have seen cases like this," and so on. Mathematically, I am told, probability can be quantified with a fair degree of precision. So to affirm that something is unlikely without evidence is just as invalid as affirming that something is likely without evidence.

Second: I never affirmed that psychohistory was likely. That is why the title of this thread, which I started, is in the form of a question. I wanted to know if a sufficiently large and communicatively connected human population could have its history predicted mathematically, as it is in Isaac Asimov's Foundation Series. Others on this thread have given me good reasons to plant Dr. A's psychohistory firmly in the realm of fiction. So far, you haven't, but the other posters have already done me that favor.

You DID do me a different favor my providing me with the closest *actual* things to Asimov's psychohistory. Your last paragraph is, to me, a treasure. For that I thank you.
 
  • #19
DaveC426913
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Do robotic welders on an assembly line observe the Laws?
Yes. They do. Was there any question?

But point made - much of Asimov's writing was about those very leaky margins:
- Robots running into mines and carrying out cursing miners whom the bots saw as being in danger by radiation...
- Robot surgeons being unable to use a scalpel to cut open a human...
- etc.
 
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  • #20
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Asimov was churning out sci-fi (and non-fiction) work at a prodigious rate when the Foundation series was written, being paid by the word and not much for them, and in his autobiography he noted his approach to his stories:
By the time a particular book is published, the [writer] hasn’t much time to worry about how it will be received or how it will sell. By then he has already sold several others and is working on still others and it is these that concern him. This intensifies the peace and calm of his life.
So, we should probably not imagine that he was attempting to elaborate anything more than a mechanism for narrative tension, as @Klystron and @DaveC426913 note with regards the Three Laws of Robotics.

But I was wondering about a hypothetical real-world example of psychohistory. The Australian Aborigine culture endured for tens of thousands of years prior to European contact in what seems to be a generally static fashion. An Aboriginal psychohistory expert, basing their models on the past, would very like not have predicted Captain Cook declaring their land terra nullius in 1770, even if their model included the prior contact with Dutch navigator, Willem Janszoon, in 1606 and the other European explorers who made their way Down Under. It is doubtful that fictional psychohistory expert would have predicted what happened after Cook, either.

That's not merely because it would have been outside the knowledge of the model. We tend to downplay adverse events in our thinking, and since models are trained, informed, and influenced by our biases, protecting something as complex and all encompassing as a psychohistory model from such inherent flaws would seem to be another nail in the coffin of Asimov's concept.
 
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  • #21
DaveC426913
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So, we should probably not imagine that he was attempting to elaborate anything more than a mechanism for narrative tension, as @Klystron and @DaveC426913 note with regards the Three Laws of Robotics.
I'm not really sure what you mean by this. Are you saying he didn't have the time or inclination to give his robot stories his best to make them as successful as possible?
 
  • #22
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Are you saying he didn't have the time or inclination to give his robot stories his best to make them as successful as possible?
Asimov was writing stories as quickly as possible, deliberately, so he was not polishing and pontificating the plot or narrative or characters more than was necessary. He wrote for the readers - and seemed to acknowledge he would not win literary recognition in the form of a Pulitzer - and his view of 'success' seemed to be what would sell in the magazines for the shorts and what would be published as novels. His stories were clearly successful, but "as successful as possible"? Not sure how we could measure that.

In terms of narrative effectiveness, his Laws (which were developed in collaboration with John Campbell, let's not forget) were a terrific shortcut for tension. He states them, the reader accepts them, then he finds a scenario that violates them in some clever fashion, leading to a dilemma that delights the reader in the way it is sorted out. He was really good at this, he won like eight Hugo's and a bunch of other industry awards, but his stories were shotgunned into the market.

It's worth reading his autobiographies from the time - In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt - because while he poured a lot of effort into his sci-fi, it was not the sole thing he worked on. He wrote children's stories, he wrote history books, he wrote science books, he wrote mysteries, he used various pseudonyms.

The guy was fantastically prolific, truly an astounding talent 👏
 
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  • #23
DaveC426913
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It's worth reading his autobiographies from the time - In Memory Yet Green and In Joy Still Felt - because while he poured a lot of effort into his sci-fi, it was not the sole thing he worked on. He wrote children's stories, he wrote history books, he wrote science books, he wrote mysteries, he used various pseudonyms.

The guy was fantastically prolific, truly an astounding talent
Yep. I read his non-fiction book on astronomy and stars. One of my most treasured science books.
 
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