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Oracles: From ancient prophets to AI masters

Christian Caurla | Rachel Stewart
November 21, 2023

Humans have always wanted to look into the future – but have we lost control over it? Travel with us to the bellybutton of the world to uncover the secrets of the oracles of old and to find out what they can show us about our algorithm-driven present. It's a tale of fate and free will, from Oedipus to AI, from Greece to the Netherlands and beyond. Take your seats for an episode in three acts.


Episode transcript: 

Sound of entering museum room

Alexa: So…

Chris: Amazing!

Alexa: Hello, hello!

Chris: I’ll set the scene. So…

Sound of sniffing the air

Chris: The room smells like incense.

Music: Jazzy, upbeat

Chris: The lights are dimmed and colorful. I’m sitting at a black table, with a magic-looking woman, holding magic-looking cards. And… she’s gonna tell me my future!

Alexa: Wooo!

Music rises

Rachel: This is Don’t Drink the Milk, I’m Rachel Stewart. And you just heard our producer, Chris Caurla.

Chris: Here I am.            

Rachel: In today's episode we're exploring something that humans all over the world and all through the ages have shared: the desire to look into the future.

Chris: So, we thought: Where better to start than tarot cards?

Rachel: A deck of cards invented some 700 years ago in Northern Italy. Which is where you're from, Chris. So, are you a regular at the card reader?

Chris: Nope. That was my first time.

Rachel: Ok so I'm dying to know – what did the cards say about your future?

Chris: I promise I’ll tell you about that later. But there’s something else that really surprised me…

Music: Curious, subtle

Alexa: It’s like learning a language. Every card has a different meaning.

Chris: By the way, I’m at the Magic Museum in Berlin. This is tarot-card reader Alexa, and she is very particular.

Sound of moving cards on table

Alexa: I could start shuffling my cards.

Sound of shuffling cards

Chris: She shuffles the cards, spreads them all on the table.

Alexa: I’m cleaning the old energy out, and letting new energy in…

Chris: She forms a circle with the cards…

Alexa: I’ll make a little circle.

Chris: …leaves some space in the middle.

Alexa: So now you’re pulling 4 cards with your left hand.

Chris: I select 4 cards.

Rachel: With your left hand…

Chris: Of course.

Chris: And do I turn it?

Alexa: No.

Chris: She places them in a diamond shape, representing the past…

Sound of card being turned over on the table

Chris:  …present…

Sound of card being turned over on the table twice

Chris: …and future.

Sound of card being turned over on the table

Chris: There’s so many little instructions that you have to follow. There is a specific, sort of procedure – it’s not random. It almost sounds like an… algorithm.

Alexa: Yes! That’s true! Yes!

Music rises, upbeat

Rachel: An algorithm. Because these days, sure some people might still consult tarot cards or use other traditional methods of seeing into the future. But the modern-day oracles – they're in our pockets.

Chris: If you check what the weather will be like at the weekend, or how bad the traffic will be on your way to the office – that's predicting the future.

Rachel: Or when Spotify recommends the songs it thinks you’ll like…

Chris: Yes, and those are just the ones you're aware of.

Rachel: There are algorithms that predict diseases, love matches.

Chris: And they are not just predicting our future. They are shaping it, distorting it, and deciding it.

Rachel: They decide whether you can buy a home, get a job, or even end up in prison.

Chris: Often without us even noticing it!

Music: Jazzy + JINGLE (Whispers “Don’t Drink the Milk” and phone dial tone)

SFX: Theater audience murmur, theater curtain raised, footstep on stage, person clears their throat

Rachel: Act 1, the past: The OG oracles.

Music: Ancient Greece, mystery

Clip from Oedipus play: And what is the oracle? So far your words inspire in me no confidence or fear.

Sound of steps, Rachel & Chris on the ground in Athens

Rachel: I’m kinda scared of seeing the future. I don’t wanna get into that messy headspace of feeling that I know what’s gonna happen and therefore having the constant stress of: Do I try to change that? I would rather just see what comes.

Chris: You mean, you wouldn’t want to know that you were gonna kill your mother and have sex with your dad?

Rachel: I would rather not be aware of that.

Sound of laughter

Chris: But maybe if you know you can prevent it!

Rachel: Well, it didn’t work out for Oedipus.

Chris: No, in fact knowing it was his ruin.

Rachel: Oedipus – that character from Greek mythology, the one that ended up ended marrying his mother and killing his father. But there’s more to his story. Let's recap with the help of the students at Warwick university – and listen up, because it turns out you and Oedipus might not be so different. Maybe all our fates lie in the hands of the oracles.

SFX: Dramatic sting

Music: Greek, old, storytelling

Rachel: Once upon a time in Thebes, Greece, King Laius and Queen Jocasta are told something disturbing by the oracle of Delphi: If they have a son, he will grow up to kill his father and have sex with his mother. Now, what would you do if you heard that prophecy? 

Chris: Not have kids? 

Rachel: Well yes, that probably would have been clever. But they try their luck anyway, hoping to have a girl. Surprise surprise, they end up having a boy…

SFX: Baby crying

Chris: Oedipus.

Rachel: Yep. So fearing the prophecy, they decide to kill him.

Clip from Oedipus play: Laius pinned his ankles tight together and ordered other men to take him out on a mountain rock where no one ever goes.

Chris: Great parenting.

Rachel: Totally. But a servant takes pity on the poor boy, and instead of killing him, secretly gives him to the childless King and Queen of Corinth.

Chris: So, was he ever told he was adopted?

Rachel: Nope!

Chris: Okay, so Oedipus, the predicted father killer and mother…

Rachel: Ha… beep!

Chris: He is alive, alright, but at least in another city, far away from his real parents.

Rachels: Exactly. But one day, Oedipus finds out about the prophecy. What would you do if you got this prediction of the future?

Chris: Damn. Get as far away as possible from my parents?

Rachel: The problem is that Oedipus doesn’t know that these are his adoptive parents. So, he leaves home, and head to … would you believe it… Thebes!

Chris: Yikes. Precisely where his real parents are!

SFX: Horse and carriage

Rachel: Yep! Anyway, on the way he meets a guy, gets into an argument and kills him.

Chris: As you do.

Clip: With the staff I held, I hit him a quick blow and knocked him from his carriage to the road.

SFX: Blow with wooden staff

Rachel: And yes, that later turns out to be King Laius, his biological father. 

SFX: Man saying “strike one”

Rachel: Blissfully unaware, he continues to Thebes and ends up marrying the now widowed queen. Aka, his biological mother.

SFX: Man saying “strike two”

Rachel: But, again, Oedipus doesn’t know any of this. He's pretty happy, ruling over Thebes, being a great king. But one day, his city starts to suffer from a terrible plague.

Music: Changes to mysterious fairytale

Clip from Oedipus play: Disease infects fruit blossoms in our land, disease infects our herds of grazing cattle.

Rachel: A prophet tells Oedipus that the plague is a punishment sent by the Gods, because the man who killed King Laius…

Chris: Oedipus’ real father…

Rachel: …was never brought to justice. So, Oedipus tries to find that man.
Chris: But he doesn’t know that he’s looking for himself.
Rachel: Yep. By this point, his mother slash wife has clocked what's going on and begs him to stop his investigation.

Clip from Oedipus play: Jocasta: You unhappy man! May you never find out who you really are.

Rachel: But Oedipus goes ahead and discovers the truth. So, he gouges his eyes out, so as not to look upon the mess he has created.
Clip from Oedipus play: In my wreched life, why should I have eyes when therewas  nothing sweet for me to see?

Music: Peaks and ends

Chris: Wow… Now that’s a tragedy.

Rachel: So depressing.

Chris: You know what drives me nuts about this story? Nothing would have happened if no one believed the prophecy! Oedipus’ parents would have never tried to kill him, obviously. Oedipus would have never left his home town to get away from his adopted parents. They would all have been fine.

Rachel: Yeah because by believing the oracles and then trying to run away from their prophecies, everyone sort of made them come true. It was self-fulfilling, essentially.

Chris: Yeah… and it wasn’t just Oedipus, everyone believed her. This isn’t just a story, this isn’t just fiction. The oracle of Delphi….

Rachel: a woman, or a few women, sitting in the Temple of Apollo…

Chris: …that oracle was the most respected prophet of ancient times. And not just in Greece but also Egypt, Persia and Rome. Even great philosophers like Plato and Socrates admired her. So, I just wonder, why did everyone believe these prophecies?

Music: Thoughtful, subtle

Rachel: There's only one way to find out.

Music: Upeat, modern

Rachel: We arrive in Athens…

Sound of Chris making fun of Rachel for saying calamari instead of kalimera

Chris: Kalimera. Last name is Caurla and Stewart.

Chris: …book a bus to Delphi…

Woman: This is for two, with lunch.

Rachel:...and meet our colorful tour guide, Joy Charoniti of Chat Tours, who sets us straight immediately.

Joy: It's Delphi. NOT DelphEYE or Delphi.

Chris: Delphi.

Rachel: It sounds a bit softer - Delphi.

Chris: I think Delphi is close enough.

Rachel: Ok Delphi.

Joy: It was a pilgrimage – the one important pilgrimage for all people. Mainly for the fact that it was the center of the earth.

Chris: Well, that's what they used to say. And it kinda feels like that. We drive past hills, and valleys, and cliffs, and slopes that envelop the mountain on which the temple rests.

Joy: Now, the earth is a body. The human body has a center. What’s that? The bellybutton.

Chris: Travelling to the belly button of the earth. Did you think I’d bring you here?

Rachel: I’m tempted to go and tickle it.

Sound of laughter

Chris: Finally, we reach the Temple.

Music: Changes to slow, mysterious

Joy: Behind you is the altar where they would sacrifice to Apollo, where they would kill a lamb.

Rachel: So, you'd make your offering to Apollo first. Now let's get inside and find out how she did it…

Joy: This would have been the way people would enter it. So, you go up the ramp…

Chris: …how the oracle made all those prophecies.

Joy: And then one by one you were allowed to go inside and go straight down to the basement. Now the basement is important, because that's where the gas is.  

Music peaks and drops suddenly

Rachel: The gas?

Chris: Yes, the gas. It turns out, down in the basement of the temple, there was this gas coming from a crack in the ground. Probably because of tectonic movement under Delphi.

Rachel: What kind of gas are we talking about here?

Chris: It’s called ethylene. Surgeons used to use it for anesthesia. And it looks like the oracle was inhaling it before making the prophecies.

Rachel: But why?

Chris: Well, even in small doses, ethylene gives a kind of pleasant, disembodied high.

Rachel: So, wait, the oracle really was getting high?

Chris: Yeah.

Rachel: I can't believe we travelled all this way to find out the secrets of oracle-making and she was just tripping!

Chris: She was just tripping.

Rachel: Are you disappointed Chris?

Chris: Yeah, no, I don’t know. It’s not so uncommon if you think about it. All the shamanistic rituals, they all tap into this sort of spiritual self, with a little boost, perhaps, from psychedelics.

Rachel: True, fair.

Chris: Anyway, that's not the end of the process…

Sound of walking outside the temple

Joy: So I go inside then, as a pilgrim, I ask my question. And she will try to give us an, but she usually won't make sense. Because she's high.

Chris: Whatever riddle comes out of her mouth, this then gets interpreted by male priests.

Rachel: Ugh, she's channeling the word of the male God Apollo, her message is then interpreted by male priests…

Chris: Yeah. But even with the help of the priests, the prophecies aren't always crystal clear. It's not like they say "do this" or "do that." There's a lot of wiggle room and ambiguity. Take her last prophecy. The oracle didn’t just say "this is the last prediction," she was more mysterious.

Joy: Apollo doesn’t live here anymore.

Music: Pensive

Rachel: So do you feel like you have your answer? To why people believed in these prophecies?
Chris: Kinda. Kinda. I mean, we know how she made the prophecies, but why people believed them, that’s trickier. And for me, there’s another clue that’s more important than the gas. And it has to do with a message.

Joy: The entrance of this building, you know the inscription that was up there? "To know thyself." You read this before you go inside, to know who you are...

Chris: Know thyself. It’s a bit weird. Don’t you think?

Music: Thoughtful, light tension

Rachel: Very. You come all this way to find out what the future has in store for you, and then you get here and this sign tells you to know yourself.

Chris: Yes! I think it goes back to the ambiguity in the oracle’s prophecies. You know? The fact that the she wasn’t speaking so clearly.

Rachel: She kind of spoke in riddles.

Chris: What if that wasn’t a bad thing, but a good one?

Rachel: Hmm…?

Chris: People would come all the way here because they had a big problem, they were stuck, they couldn’t decide. And the oracle would give them something different around which to sort of reorganize their thoughts. It was not an order, but a dialogue. It forced you to reason – to know yourself.

Rachel: But that’s not the case with today’s oracles. After the break, how we still use them, but how we've turned them into our servants.

Music ends


Music: Ancient, building, tension

Rachel: Act 2, the present: From Oracles to Servants.

Clip from Oedipus play: Listen to me and ease your mind with this: No human being has skill in prophecy.

Rachel: These days we don't want oracles to help us know ourselves. We want them to decide something for us – quickly, conveniently, without us having to think at all. The day after our trip to Delphi, we step back into the modern world to see just how many oracles we end up using on a day out in Athens.

Music: Upbeat, travel, jazzy

Rachel: So, let's have a look. Where are we? We’re in Athens.

SFX: Phone typing

Chris: First up, the weather app predicts:

Rachel: No rain, sunshine.

Chris: Ok, so it's still T-shirt weather.

SFX: Coffee cup and teaspoon

Rachel: Over breakfast I read Chris his horoscope.

SFX: Magazine pages flipping

Rachel: Towards Friday, you manage to find your balance again.

Chris: Today!

Rachel: You have people around you who show you right from wrong. That's me.

Sound of laughter

Chris: Time for oracle number 3 to pick a spot for lunch.

Rachel: Google maps, thinks we'll enjoy:

SFX: Phone typing

Chris: “Classic Greek fare with a roof terrace.”

Rachel: Yeah, that sounds nice!

Rachel: But how long will it take to get there? Uber predicts:

Chris: Oh, pretty quick – 16 minutes.

Rachel: Chris reveals he already checked two more oracles before he even got out of bed: His news aggregator, which predicts what he'll want to read, and a stock market forecast to find out how rich he's gonna be by the end of the day.

Chris: Six oracles before lunch!

Sound of leaving the flat and going into the street

Chris: We head out.

Chris & Rachel: Efcharistó! (Thank you)

Chris: But…

Chris: Oh, I guess it's this one…

Rachel: Google's restaurant recommendation was a bit off.

Chris: So sometimes you've just got to say:

Rachel: Screw the oracle!

Chris: Screw the oracle!

SFX: Smart watch vibration

Rachel: Chris checks his smart watch, which uses things like heart rate, sleep pattern and recent activities to predict how much exercise he should be getting today.

Chris: Plan for some moderate exercise, but don't overdo it.

Chris: As for Rachel's biology? Her cycle tracking app predicted her period would start today. And guess what?

Rachel: Always trust the oracles and always carry a tampon.

Sound of laughter

Rachel: But it's time to raise the stakes. For that, we need a live sports match.

Chris: Panathinaikos against Bayern Munich, tonight!

Rachel: On the way to the basketball stadium, we get our last prediction of the day.

Chris: So according to the oracle…

Rachel: …that's the betting website…

Chris: …Panathinaikos is more likely to win than Bayern Munich.

Rachel: Really? Oh right!

Rachel: We're taking no risks. 10 euros on the home team.

Sound of chanting fans

Chris: And… Panathinaikos takes the win!

Rachel: Meaning we pocket… how much again?

Chris: €2.40.

Rachel: Oh. Thanks oracle.

Rachel: It’s kinda cool. All the little oracles we were using today were basically just like little tools.

Chris: Yeah and they're easy to access, pretty accurate and mostly free.

Rachel: Except, they’re not really free. While we were using these oracles to get around and be tourists, they were using us…

Music: Digital glitchy sound

Silkie: Never before in any moment in history have you been able to perform the kind of mass intrusion into people's private lives that you can with data storage and the technological tools available today.

Chris: This is Silkie Carlo, she is the director of Big Brother Watch, and if anyone knows how evil algorithms can be, that’s her.

Silkie: If you look at the way AI is being developed, the way algorithms are being deployed, the way even modern security cameras are used, the practices of the big companies and they data that they take… the view is just take it all! It’s an insatiable appetite for information.

Rachel: So, in ancient times people would offer a goat or a lamb to the oracle. And today instead, we offer our data?

Chris: Yep. And every time we ask these oracles to make a prediction for us, they gather some data so they can get better next time.

Rachel: Ah but that means it's kind of for our benefit, to make the predictions better.

Chris: Right. But there’s also something else they can do with all that data. They can use it to flip the relationship, not just to predict what the weather will do or how the traffic will be, but to instead predict what WE will do.

Music rises: Investigative, thoughtful

Silkie: We've seen a sudden appetite develop in public authorities to try to predict what members of the public will do. And sometimes that can be on an individual level, literally individual predictions about people that then affect their lives.

Chris: And these individualized predictions can be extremely biased. For example, in the UK, after exams were canceled because of the pandemic, they used an algorithm to give out grades. And it seems like it tended to give lower scores to students from poorer areas. Or the secret AI recruiting tool Amazon was using, which, it turns out was biased against women. Or an algorithm that was used in some US hospitals, which required Black patients to be sicker than white ones to receive the same treatment recommendations.

Rachel: Wow, sounds dystopian.

Chris: Right. But the craziest one, the one that really shows the danger of algorithms, happened in the Netherlands. And for this, I want to introduce you to Derya.

Music: Suspenseful

Derya: We had a very nice house in a very good neighborhood with famous Dutch people, it was a very good place to live.

Chris: Her story starts in 2008 in the Netherlands.

Derya: We both had our job, no financial problems. We had a very high mortgage but we could pay for it. Just a very good life. I realized that afterwards.

Music rises

Derya: I remember I came home from work and there was this envelope of the tax office. I just picked up the children from childcare and I was just at home and I saw the letters on the floor. I just grabbed the envelope and went to the kitchen and I was cooking. And I opened it and the letter said: “You have to pay back €60,000.” And I was like, well, that's funny. Maybe there’s a zero too much.

Music picks up pace

Chris: In the Netherlands, parents get money from the state to help them out paying for childcare. But the tax office said Derya had taken too much. It accused her of committing fraud.

Derya: I called the Tax office. I remember that very well. And I said, well, I received a letter yesterday. I think there was a mistake. And they said, No, there's no mistake.

Chris: Derya tried everything. She sent letters, reached out to lawyers, and kept calling the tax office.

Derya: They said: “Why are you calling again?” And I said: “Well, I can't pay it. I don't know what to do. I'm losing my house, I'm losing my job. I'm going to lose my children. Maybe because when I will be homeless. My husband is leaving me. So we are getting a divorce and everything is going so bad. What should I do? What can I do?” And they just told me: “There's nothing we can do for you to solve your problems. Just pay it. Just pay the money back. You can pay for it now or we have to sell your house to get the money from the house.” And that's what happened.

Music rises

Derya: I had this phone call. “Your house is being sold.” And I was at my work and I was like: “What the f***? My house is sold.” So I just dropped down, I passed out. I had six days to empty my house and collect my stuff. And I was homeless with two children. I was depressed and I was in debt for €170,000 and I had nowhere to go. There was no one to help me out. And I was really sinking and drowning and there was a moment I just wanted to die. Actually. I was like: “When I die, it's over.” But of course I have two children. So the motherly feeling was stronger than anything, as usual, to survive. And I was like, okay, I have to accept this is my life from now on. I think two or three days after this, I was watching – I had no TV because they also took the TV – I was watching a news program on my phone.

Chris: It turns out, she wasn’t the only one. As more and more people were being affected, their stories started to hit the media.

Derya: I was like this is exactly what happened to me. So I'm not alone? No you’re not alone. And that's when it started.

Music ends

Rachel: So what was happening?

Chris: Well, dear Rachel, what was happening is the next step in the evolution of oracles – from our servants, to our masters.

Music: Digital rising

Music: Ancient Greece, drama and tension

Rachel: Act 3. The future. From servants to masters.

Clip from Oedipus play: I’ll be a wicked man if I do not act on all the god reveals.

Khadija: Some people get their money back, but you cannot pay history back.

Chris: I talked with Derya’s lawyer.

Khadija: My name is Khadija Bozia.

Chris: She told me that her case is part of a much larger scandal. So big, that it eventually brought down the Dutch government.

Chris: How many cases are therein general?

Khadija: We must think about 50,000.

Khadija: Of course, everywhere where we go, there is fraud. But this was something else.

Chris: The government wanted to detect some of this fraud in the child benefits system. So they devised an algorithm. The problem is that it wasn’t really detecting, but predicting. It’s not clear how the algorithm picked its victims, but you can see there’s a pattern.

Khadija: Women who have no husband and women with a lot of children. People from other countries have an exotic name like Turkish, Moroccan. If you see my walls are full of dossiers, then you can see that there is no Dutch name on it.

Music: Heartbeat

Khadija: I know somebody who lost her house and stayed for four months with three children outside. I know one family, her husband committed suicide three years ago. A lot of women who were pregnant and committed abortion because they think they couldn't care for more children.

Chris: Why couldn’t they prove that they were innocent?

Khadija: Because you have no, your file. And if you are on that list everywhere you go, they know you are a fraud, so they will not help you. A lot of people have also no money, because if the tax authority says you have to pay me 30 or €40,000, then a lawyer don't want to help because the person cannot pay a lawyer.

Rachel: So was this just a case of a really badly designed algorithm?

Chris: It’s definitely horribly designed. But there’s also a more fundamental issue...

Akos: Hello?

Chris: Hello, can you hear me?

Akos: Yes, can you hear me?

Chris: I can hear you, very loud and clear, thank you. How’s it going?

Akos: I’m good.

Chris: This is Akos Rona-Tas, he’s a Professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Akos: Making a prediction is very difficult especially about the future.

Chris: He told me that predictive algorithms are not really predicting, they are projecting the past.

Akos: We are talking about pattern recognition.

Chris: Basically, what these algorithms are doing is trying to find a pattern and then they assume it will continue. And for this to work, they have to make an important assumption.

Akos: And that is that the past is the same as the future.

Rachel: Well, I suppose that can kind of make sense, for example with, I don’t know, the weather or the stock market. If there’s a trend, then you can kind of predict what’s gonna come next.

Chris: Bingo. And that’s fine for these kinda things. But the problem is, if you apply the same logic to people, the assumption is that we have no free will.

Rachel: Yeah and that's just wrong! Because of course people can change their mind or behavior. And if we do, then I guess the algorithm's prediction will just be completely wrong.

Chris: Exactly. But it’s even worse than that, it's more twisted, because sometimes we want to change the past. We don’t want to make the same mistakes. Akos called this concept “historical inertia”.

Akos: If we let algorithms take over our lives, the algorithms can create all sorts of vicious and virtuous cycles in our lives putting us on paths that will be very, very hard to get off.

Chris: They are self fulfilling prophecies: you are denied a job interview because of your gender, or color of your skin, hence you can’t get a loan, hence you can’t get a house, hence your health deteriorates, hence you have to pay more for your health insurance, and so on, and so on.

Akos: But it also goes in the other way. So if you come in with a high credit score, if you miss a payment, for instance, they are not going to report you because you are the right kind of person and they want to keep your business. So there is a small inequality at the beginning. And what the system does, it amplifies the difference and then by the end, they will be very, very far apart from each other.

Chris: Derya found herself the wrong side of the algorithm. Once it predicted she was likely to commit fraud, she ended up on a blacklist, which was passed on to other government agencies. She couldn’t get out of it, she didn’t even know she was in it, but suddenly everything was harder.

Derya: I just tried a few weeks ago to buy something online but that's not possible with me. So when I try to order anything from Internet or just to get a loan amount of money, which everyone can, for me is impossible.

Chris: Her actions, her decisions, didn’t matter to the algorithm. She was profiled as a criminal, and treated as such.

Music ends

Chris: You know what Rachel…

Rachel: What?

Chris: This free will question. It’s time to test it.

Rachel: Ok…

Chris: So hold on, let me give you this clicker right here. Just press it. And here is a clock.

Rachel: What like an egg timer?

Chris: Yeah, let me just put this…

Rachel: Eh, what's this?!

Chri: It's an EEG cap with all the electrodes to check…

Rachel: I did not agree to this!

Chris: Don't you worry, it’s just a little test. Just let me go into the other room over here.

Rachel: Ok.

Sound of studio door opening and closing

Rachel: Where's he going?

Chris (with intercom effect): Rachel can you hear me?

Rachel: Uh yeah… what's going on?

Chris: So now you’ve got a clicker in your hand, a timer in front of you, and a cap with electrodes on your head for me to read your thoughts.

Rachel: What?

Chris: Don’t worry. It's an experiment. All you have to do is look at the timer and tell me what time it is when you decide to click.

Rachel: Ok, so I randomly decide when to press the clicker, then I just read the timer and click?

Chris: Yes, exactly. Decide, say the number, click. Off you go.

Rachel: Ok… Um… 8 *click*... 13 *click*… What are we doing, Chris?

Chris: Keep going.

Rachel: 20… *click* …25 *click*…32 *click*

Chris: Hmm interesting. Now.

Rachel: 38 *click*

Chris: And now.

Rachel: 42 *click* Why are you saying “now”?

Chris: Because I can see when you have decided to press the button even before you are aware of your decision.

Rachel: I don’t believe you.

Chris: Now!

Rachel: 53 *click*

Chris: “How is that possible?”

Rachel: How is that possible?

Chris: And then comes: “Woah, how did you know what I was going to say?”

Rachel: Woah, how did you know what I was going to say?

Chris: And then: “Can we stop this?”

Rachel: Can we stop this?

Chris: “Chris you’re scaring me!”

Rachel: Chris you’re scaring me!

Chris: “AAAAAAAH!”


Sound of laughter

Rachel: Obviously, don’t worry, that was not real – we were just reenactinga a very famous old experiment.

Chris: It’s called the Libet experiment and even though it could not know what people were gonna say next…

Rachel: We added that bit just to make it a bit more fun…

Chris: It showed that humans are pretty predictable.

Music: Quirky, thoughtful

Patrick: The Libet experiment is deceptively simple.

Chris: I talked with one of the leading scientists in the field, Patrick Haggard. He’s done this experiment a bunch of times, in a bunch of different ways, but the basic structure is something like what we just did.

Patrick: It's really got just three parts.

Chris: The first one is that the participant has to make a certain action.

Rachel: Like clicking a button.

Sound: Click, click

Patrick: Libet didn't tell you when to do it. It's up to you. So you decide for yourself of your own free will if you like, when you make the action.

Chris: The second part is a clock.

Sound of clock ticking

Patrick: So the participant was watching a clock hand going round and round, and they were instructed to note the position of the clock hand when they decided to move.

Chris: Most participants did what you did, Rachel. They decide to move and a fraction of a second after they moved.

Rachel: 25 *click*… 38 *click*

Rachel: But it was almost instantaneous, right? Like the blink of an eye.

Chris: Exactly – it’s almost immediate, 200 milliseconds or something like that. And the third part is that helmet with electrodes.

Patrick: While this was going on, Libet was recording the brain activity in the participants’ brains.

Chris: Every time you click the neurons in your brain fire a bit of electricity.

SFX: Electricity sent

Chris: That electricity is then picked up by the electrodes in the helmet.

SFX: Electricity received

Patrick: What Libet found is that the brain activity that precedes your voluntary action begins often around a second or so before you move.

Chris: Basically, those electrodes showed that there’s an increase in electricity, or in brain activity, well before you say the number. The machine sees your decision before you have consciously made it.

SFX: Electricity sent and received

Rachel: 42 *click*

Chris: This means that my brain is deciding without me knowing that I am deciding?

Patrick: Correct.

Chris: But it's so spooky! If I'm not deciding who's deciding?

Patrick: Well I think our brain decides.

Chris: It’s still me, right?

Patrick: the brain is not different from the person. The dualistic idea that somehow there's a soul in the mind which is independent of the body and independent of the brain, and can get the brain and the body to implement its decisions…

Chris: Yeah, exactly. That's kind of how you feel. There's sort of a ghost and a machine and I'm the ghost moving the machine.

Patrick: That's how it feels. But that's not how it is.

Chris: There's just the machine.

Patrick: There is no ghost in the machine. There’s just a machine.

Rachel: Oh my god. So the plot twist is that we really are all just machines?

Chris: Sort of. This is just an experiment, and not everyone agrees on what it means, but it does make it easier to see how other machines could predict our actions.

Patrick: In principle, this opens the possibility of neuro technologies, methods, which can detect the brain activity and can predict that the person is going to act and in principle can make that prediction before the person even has the conscious experience or conscious decision that they're going to make to the action.

Rachel: It really reminds me of that movie with Tom Cruise, Minority Report.

Clip from Minority report – “The precogs see the future, and they’re never wrong.”

Chris: Yeah, not so sci-fi anymore. Predictive policing, which tries to anticipate crime using algorithms, is already being used all over the world.

Rachel: Wow.

Chris: And we can imagine this problem just getting bigger. What if one day, you could lose your job because you eat too much pizza?

Rachel: Pizza?

Chris: Yes, as an Italian it pains me to say this, but there is such a thing as too much pizza.

Rachel: No.

Chris: Yeah. So imagine this scenario: As your health takes a hit from all that mozzarella, this little wearable device buzzes with a warning. But here's the catch – it's not just for you. Your employer gets the alert too. They're the ones paying for your health insurance, so, they tell you, "Dude, cut down on the pizza."

Rachel: Well, at least it’s good for my health.

Chris: Ok, but what if there will be an AI oracle that knows every test you've ever taken, every single thing you've ever written or said. And it uses all that to suggest the perfect career for you. Do you follow it blindly? Do you ignore it? What if companies had access to your prediction? In short, what’s with the old oracle’s warning to “know thyself” when new oracles know you better than you know yourself?

Music: Solemn, pensive

Chris: Derya has turned things around. She's back working for the government, helping folks caught in the same child benefit tangle she was in. But some scars remain.

Derya: That was really my hardest lesson in life. This scandal has proven that people also lose control over the systems. It's a machine and it's just going its own way. And I think the human intelligence is not capable of seeing it and stopping it.

Chris: Our world is piloted by secret algorithms. And hey, sometimes that's perfectly fine. We all love a good shortcut to dodge traffic. But, it’s a whole different ball game when they start calling the shots on our personal life.

Derya: It's just the destroying of a family and a life, actually what they were doing. Just destroying everything.

Akos: We are reproducing the past to the future, and since the past is full of bias and prejudice, it gets replayed.

Silkie: These very, very new technologies are completely backwards and just use that cloak of modernity to sound like they're effective. It’s pseudoscience, it’s snake oil, it’s rubbish.

Chris: Maybe one day, algorithms will advance to a point where they know us better than we know ourselves and can predict every aspect of our lives. But accuracy isn't the only concern here. Derya’s story shows that predictions are not a neutral act. Every prediction shapes the future. So we should also ask, who gets to make these predictions? Who gets to decide? Is a more accurate prediction worth sacrificing our free will, or even just its illusion?

Music ends

Chris: Now we go to number four.

Alexa: Now we go to card inspiration, advice, hint. Let’s see.

Chris: Woah!

Alexa: Woah! You need to fight for it!

Chris: Is that a fighter?

Alexa: Yes, that’s the fighter.

Music: Jazzy, upbeat

Rachel: The fighter?

Chris: Yes, the fighter. That’s the tarot card I got and apparently I’ll have to fight for something. Anyway, there’s something else I need to reveal.

Rachel: What?

Chris: Well, the topic of this episode was recommended to me by an oracle.

Rachel: No way. Which one?

Chris: I was looking for topics right when ChatGPT came out.

Rachel: Of course.

Chris: So I thought I'd try it out and I said, hey, I am working on a podcast that is so and so, can you give me some suggestions for an episode? And one of the suggestions was oracles.

Rachel: Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies…

Chris: Yep.

Music rises

Rachel: This episode was produced by Chris Caurla and inspired by a passage about oracles in Yuval Harari's book "Homo Deus". The episode was edited by Sam Baker. Our team also includes Rayna Breuer on fact checking, Julia Rose helping with archives and Charli Shield. Special thanks to all our interview partners, our Oedipus and Jocasta from Warwick university, Chat Tours in Athens and the Magic Museum in Berlin. I'm your host Rachel Stewart.

If you want to try your hand at predicting the future, let us know what future topics – be it an item, a movement or an idea – that you'd like us to follow around the world. Get in touch at dontdrinkthemilk@dw.com, no apostrophe! We'll be back in 2 weeks… so the oracles say.