IFTTT: Automation and the philosophy of causation

• 3 min read

Some thoughts on the implications of AI, automation, causation and… the philosophy of metaphysics?

We have been hearing a lot about the growth of AI. How much it is going to revolutionize learning tech. Change everything. But I’m not a computer tech genius; I studied Philosophy back in the day.

To help me out, one of my colleagues explained things in terms I could understand. He used the app If This Then That (IFTTT) to help me get to grips with the simplest form of AI. I use a similar automation app and set it to do a bunch of the things that would otherwise frustrate me each day.

The basic idea behind these apps is that you set a trigger (If This…) and then an action (Then That). So when I get fed up with my mother calling me on Saturday morning when she thinks I should be out of bed… I set up a rule that says If it is earlier than 10am, Then my phone is silent. I set another saying If I get a missed call from ‘Mom’, Then automatically send a message saying I’m out for an early morning run. (You are welcome.) The possibilities are endless. If I open YouTube, Then my screen rotation is enabled. If I’m in range of home, Then my wifi turns back on. Simple time-savers that make my life easier.

Automation is a simple form of AI, says my helpful colleague.

Automation and the philosophy of causality

To me, this sounds just like cause and effect. Causality. One of the first lessons I had as a Philosophy major. One of the tenets of metaphysics. To understand what something is, our founding philosophical fathers hold, we must look at what causes it. Later, empirical science itself would be based on this relationship.

But this brings out an important divide in talking about causality. And this divide is the basis of arguments about Free Will. The question, simply, is that if everything is purely cause and effect, then is the same true of our lives and the decisions we make? Is there room for us to really have any choice in our lives, or are our decisions just IFTTT conditions?

Causality and choice

The two sides of this divide fit into two camps: incompatibilism and compatibilism. An incompatibilist thinks no, the causal chain does not allow for deviation. A compatibilist believes that yes it does, and that we can have both causality and a choice.

It seems to me that automation is a bit like the incompatibilist position. If This Then That conditions are set up without any room for a decision to change the condition. In my automation app, there is no room for my phone to decide to alter the cause and effect relationship. There is no room for the software to say, ‘Yeah, I guess I should get around to doing that,’ but then lazily put it off until the point that it is too late.

I am going to assume we – as people – are more like the compatibilist position. We find ourselves in the middle of If This Then That causality all the time, but we can choose to redirect the outcome.

The choice we have to make

The fact of the matter is that the greatest If This Then That condition that we face in our industry right now is: If the new learning technologies exist, Then we must adopt those technologies and change our ways. Another way to put it is: If we do not make drastic changes to keep up with technological shifts, Then we get left behind.

Unlike automation, we have the opportunity to break the causal chain. To do nothing.

Unlike automation, these changes are not just going to take effect in our companies as we sit and wait.

We are the Free Will in this scenario. And we have to make a choice.

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