[Link] 20 2020 Pennies (a webcomic chapter about many worlds and decision theory... sort of)

The comic in question (Penny & Aggie; by T Campbell) is as a whole a simple teenage comedy/drama. But the particular storyline I'd like to discuss here takes a much more SF turn than usual, and it's (marginally; if we stretch the concepts a bit) related to issues relevant to LessWrong; decision theory, CEV, perhaps even simulations and/or many-worlds.

The needed context is that in the page immediately previous, one of the comic's two protagonists (Penny) is asked by her biker boyfriend Rich to follow him on the road, effectively dropping out of highschool.

The chapter itself is about 20 different future Pennies from the year 2020 (20 that represent trillions), convene to decide which choice to take.



Thoughts and SPOILERS for the story to follow after the space, so you may want to read it before proceeding.











  • The first thing one may notice is that this is a *weird* story that doesn't follow any of the most standard tropes -- it's not truly many worlds or parallel-universe because some realities fade when Penny's eventual decision drops them out of probability space; it's not a "What-if-I'd taken-a-different-path-in-life" because it's not meant to discuss a past decision in the life of the character but a current one; it's not time-travel. It's all very conceptual and abstract.

  • The mode of existence for these alternate future Pennies is left vague and mysterious. They don't have a completely imaginary existence in the mind of Penny, because after the decision is taken some of them persist and discuss it with other people that share said mode. They don't have a completely physical existence, because some of them can fade. And most bizarre of all, most of them voted against their very existence. (7 out of 10 Pennies that followed Rich, voted not to have followed him -- 4 of the Pennies that didn't follow him voted or seemed to want to vote in favor. That makes 11 of 20 Pennies that voted against their existence).

    Perhaps the best way one can handle this whole bizarreness would be as a visualization of the FAI-failure mode in which the AI's models of people are also people. So that the AI can only anticipate what people would want to do or would regret doing, if he has their simulations actively decide to do it, and then regret it. But for the purposes of the convention, the AI disabled all self-preservation circuitry, so that these models can vote with full honesty the decision they believe best.


  • The twist (sort of) in the story is that the collective will of all these extrapolated future versions vote against joining Rich. But present Penny vetoes their decision and follows Rich anyway -- because she doesn't really care what the probabilities say, she doesn't care what she-herself will think in the future. She's not a person-in-the-making, a person to be extrapolated, she's a person now:

    To put it in LessWrong terms: "Up yours, Extrapolated Volition".

    Most intriguingly yet, at least one of those extrapolated versions (Biker Penny who voted against joining Rich and bitterly regretted joining a "clique for losers") actually seems to admire and love how Teenage Penny is telling her to go to hell: What if your extrapolated volition is a volition that doesn't wish you to consider the rulings of your extrapolated volition?

    Also (an even more complicated scenario) what if your current volition wishes you to follow your extrapolated volition, but your extrapolated volition would want you to follow a different decision path (don't consider the future)? What ways are there outside of this paradox? What decision do you take, if you are changed by that decision into a person that will regret it either way for different reasons?


  • There is no truly dystopian universe in the subset of the 10 "didn't follow Rich" Pennies -- unlike the future of Holocaust Survivor Penny (and possibly Borg Penny too). It's rather unlikely that going with Rich would cause a global dystopia -- it's much more likely that didnt-follow-Rich Pennies simply didn't survive a dystopia with enough probability density to be represented. Doesn't that make it then a *biased* sample, improper to draw conclusions from? On the other hand, there are a number of unexplored death scenarios in the other subset as well, so if anything both sets are biased...


  • Last note: Though I consider this chapter the pinnacle of the quality in the whole Penny & Aggie comic, both art-wise, writing-wise, idea-wise, and character-wise, I consider the immediately following storyline (a side-story about Korean students we hadn't seen before and haven't seen since) to be the bottom of quality in all of the above (bad guest art, clumsy writing, unremarkable characters, etc). So, if you want to keep reading the comic, I just suggest skipping that whole following chapter.

    As I said, the rest of the comic is however mostly teenage comedy/drama, though it does include some amusing SF references/tropes from time to time.