Mumbling on WAP...

A stellar landscape. Credit: Keio University

Vacation time, at least for me in an island in the middle of nowhere. The right spot and time for some reading out of the box, like the Weak Anthropic Principles, WAP. In a nutshell the Universe is shaped in such a way that we can be here to observe it. If it weren't we wouldn't be here.  It seems out of the head of Jacques de La Palice (as you remember he had demanded to have on his tombstone the sentence "Ci gît Monsieur de La Palice: Si il' n'était pas mort, il ferait encore envie.  " that was later misread as "Ci gît Monsieur de La Palice: Si il' n'était pas mort, il ferait encore en vie. " that would translate in: "if I weren't dead I would still be alive...").  At least this is what reminds me because it is obvious.

And yet, it was stated only recently, in 1973 by Brandon Carter at a symposium on Kopernicus. Philosophers have debate for thousands of years our relationship with the Universe, if we are a (accidental) by-product of the Universe or rather the Universe has been custom made to harbour us. The WAP cuts the discussion by saying that it is irrelevant. We can only discuss about the Universe because it is a Universe that makes (our) life possible.

You can read more, with some interesting comments from several people, on a post on Ray Kurzweil blog.

One interesting thing discussed in the post is that something that is highly unlikely (but not impossibile) can nevertheless happen. Each one of us, it is noted, is such an example. The probability that our parents, grand parents and so on and so on indeed met and procreate at that particular time with that particular egg and spermatozoa has a probability that is as close to 0 as you can ever imagine, and yet that most unlikely series of events happened, and we are here to prove it.

However, it is quite wrong to turn the cards upside down and say that there were specific conditions that made it become so probable that in the end it happened. Quite the contrary. It remained absurdly unlikely!

This turning of the cards has a special fascination, because we are cabled to look for a cause and effect (that is a good survival approach, hence evolution cabled us this way). But this is nevertheless wrong.

Reading this made me think about the time we spend analysing successful companies and start ups assuming that they have been successful because. .... and there must be a "because".  What if that is just by chance?. I know that you don't like this kind of reasoning, all the work we are doing at the EIT ICT Labs to stimulate entrepreneurship and to nurture start ups is rooted in the idea that we can help, we can learn from best companies and replicate this to favour others. 

And yet, I guess we are not 100% sure this is the case. If there were a silver bullet in entrepreneurship and success you wouldn't need to edge your bets on so many start ups. A small bunch of them will be plenty. Go, look for the next Google and invest on it. The fact is we do not know what the next Google is going to look like and even less how it looks today.

Interpreting the past looks easy, but it may lead to quite wrong (although sensible) reasoning, Applying this reasoning to the future may work, but it would be just an accident!  I will start a course on Technology Foresight in a Master on Social Forecast at the University of Trento later this Fall. I'll try to keep this in mind.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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