Review of The Minority Report, the book (1956)
This hacker review covers Philip K. Dick's original 1956 short story. My next blog post will feature Steven Spielberg's 2002 movie and we can compare the two.
Spoiler Alert: Yup, lots of 'em below.
Precrime and Precogs
The Minority Report takes place in a future where law enforcement is able to predict and prevent serious crimes. It's called Precrime. Would-be felons are arrested and sentenced before their criminal act. This has eradicated serious crime where the system is in effect.
Precogs or mutant precogs are the select few capable of predicting the future. Both the short story and the movie show them as three humanoids. In the book, they sit blabbering and are presented as shabby. In the movie they lay in a pool of liquid and communicate silently.
The Precogs produce a stream of predictive information which has to be interpreted into reports that the police can take action on. The reason why there are three precogs is that they don't always agree. In those cases the majority prediction wins.
In the 1950s book, the connection between precogs and the police computer system goes through magnetic tapes and results in reports on punch cards. In the movie there's futuristic reading of their brain signals which results in fragmented moving imagery and wooden balls engraved with the names of the victim and perpetrator.
The concept of voting code has always fascinated me. Once you're exposed to large scale software engineering, you realize that humans have not been able to produce fully correct software so far. There are always bugs and thus never full certainty on decisions made by computers.
One way of dealing with that uncertainty in sensitive algorithms is to have three independent implementations, run the same input parameters through all three, and compare the results.
This has also been suggested as defense against hacking since it's very hard for an attacker to construct input which will fool two different algorithms at the same time, resulting in the same compromised output.
The Framing of Anderton
John Anderton is the head of the Precrime department and its founder. He is approaching retirement.
Anderton is proud of and confident in the Precrime system. He is also convinced that it's morally right to convict people of crimes they haven't committed … yet. This confidence and commitment is put to the ultimate test when the precogs predict that Anderton himself will commit murder within a week.
Anderton has no plans to murder anybody. He doesn't even know who the claimed victim Leopold Kaplan is. But he's spent years and years instilling confidence in the accuracy of Precrime predictions. His conclusion is that someone is trying to frame him and he hides the punch card with his name on it. Here's his reasoning:
The conspiracy could be large-scale and elaborate, involving far more than a "rigged" card inserted somewhere along the line. The original data itself might have been tampered with. Actually, there was no telling how far back the alteration went. (…) Probably the tapes agreed with the card
A checks and balances system is in place where the US army gets a copy of all precog reports. They will know the accusation, or already do. The clock is ticking.
I love this plot point – the realization that a system compromise may have happened long ago, and potentially layers below what has just surfaced. It leads to mystery and can drive a story where the character is trying to figure out the root cause.
Deep, lengthy compromises of computer systems can result in several things.
- Prolonged corruption of stored data, including backups.
- Prolonged production of misleading data.
- Cascading effects where misleading data is produced and then used in other contexts producing even further misleading data.
One of the more mind-blowing things to compare with in the real world is manipulation of stock markets over long periods of time. You couldn't roll that back. People will have made financial decisions based on market data day by day, hour by hour. Computers will have made decisions by the nanosecond. Houses will have been bought through realized gains, travels made, companies merged. You would just have to accept the faulty results. The question is, if we all just had to accept the outcome anyway, would we ever be told it happened?
Who Has Set Anderton Up?
A young man named Witwer has just joined Precrime and is slated to take over when Anderton retires. He could be the person who've hacked the precog reports to frame Anderton.
Anderton's wife Lisa is presented as younger and much more attractive than he is. She used to be his secretary. Perhaps she wants to get rid of him and hook up with Witwer?
Anderton decides he'll flee to one of the colonized "frontier planets," wait for a week, and that way clear his name since he didn't kill anyone. He goes home to pack.
Trying to let time pass in some form of isolation to disprove a prophecy is common in fiction. It also makes the reader wonder if knowledge of ones own future lets oneself change that future?
The half-sexist role of Anderton's wife shows the book's age but him speculating that she's is in on it does add to the pressure you feel he's under.
A man with a gun shows up at Anderton's house when he's packing. He's not from the police and takes Anderton to see Kaplan. Kaplan turns out to be General of the Army of the Federated Westbloc Alliance.
The army has already picked up the threat against Kaplan through their own cards and taken matters into their own hands.
At first, Anderton fears for his life. But the precogs would have seen that too.
“Evidently,” Kaplan said, “I'm not going to have you destroyed, or it would have shown up on one of those miserable little cards. I'm curious about you. It seemed incredible to me that a man of your stature could contemplate the cold-blooded murder of a total stranger. There must be something more here. Frankly, I'm puzzled. If it represented some kind of Police strategy –“ He shrugged his thin shoulders. “Surely you wouldn't have permitted the duplicate card to reach us.”
“Unless,” one of his men suggested, “it's a deliberate plant.”
Kaplan commands Anderton be transported back to the police.
The fact that people with access to precog reports know whether or not a murder will happen is leveraged much more in the movie. But it deepens the plot that Kaplan is counting on its accuracy.
Knowledge based on the absence of something makes me think of so called warrant canaries. Court orders may require nondisclosure where you're not allowed to say that an agency has requested certain information. But you are allowed to announce that an agency has not requested certain information, and you are allowed to remove such announcements when they are no longer true. You publish the canary "We have not been served a government subpoena" and then you kill the canary by pulling that statement and thus telling the world you have been served a subpoena.
A Majority Implies a Minority
The military transport ends up in a car crash and Anderton is saved by a man called Fleming. Fleming knows a lot of what has happened and says that Lisa is indeed in on the conspiracy. He gives Anderton a packet of stuff including a false ID and tells him to take the bus to the "slum section."
When Anderton asks who Fleming represents or works for, he says "Consider us a protective society."
In the packet, Anderton finds a message:
The existence of a majority logically implies a corresponding minority.
Anderton gets to a seedy hotel in the slums. The police hunt for him is well underway and he hears a radio interview with Witwer who's taken his job at Precrime. During the interview, Witwer says something important:
… unanimity of all three precogs is a hoped-for but seldom-achieved phenomenon. (…) It's much more common to obtain a collaborative majority report of two precogs, plus a minority report of some slight variation, usually with reference to time and place, from the third mutant. This is explained by the theory of multiple futures. If only one time-path existed, precognitive information would be of no importance, since no possibility would exist, in possessing this information, of altering the future.
This makes Anderton realize there could be a minority report which indicates that he will not kill Kaplan.
Some deep thinking on fate in that Witwer quote. If there is only one future, there is no choice, only cause and effect. You could predict the whole future if you had perfect knowledge of everything at one point in time. This kind of thinking is a key piece in the Matrix movie series. For prime examples of how fate vs choice plays into the plot there, see my review of Matrix Reloaded. (Yes, I will review the third Matrix movie soon.)
Computers are fascinating from a predictability perspective. Theoretically, and somewhat naively, computers should be completely predictable. They're just logical machines moving from one state to another according to predefined rules. However, two things confound such an analysis.
First, the undecidability of complex computer programs. The most popular example of this – the Halting Problem – comes from none other than Alan Turing:
In computability theory, the halting problem is the problem of determining, from a description of an arbitrary computer program and an input, whether the program will finish running, or continue to run forever. Alan Turing proved in 1936 that a general algorithm to solve the halting problem for all possible program-input pairs cannot exist.
If you want to go deeper on undecidability, I recommend Rice's theorem, which I have not yet grokked myself.
Second, computers are artifacts prone to all kinds of errors, including bit flips due to cosmic background radiation. In theory, theory works. In practice, it doesn't.
Precrime lets the precogs vote because the system has flaws and choice is always at play, even in premeditated murder.
Getting the Minority Report
Anderton leverages contacts within Precrime to get access to the magnetic tapes of the precogs. He is looking for a discarded minority report for his forthcoming felony.
It turns out that the three precogs were out of sync time wise, or misphased, and precog Jerry's prediction was for another future:
Obviously, Jerry's report superseded the majority report. Having been informed that he would commit a murder, Anderton would change his mind and not do so. The preview of the murder had cancelled out the murder; prophylaxis had occurred simply in his being informed. Already, a new time-path had been created. But "Jerry" was outvoted.
What we have here is a bug. The voting logic relies on the precogs using the same input. But if one of them uses input from later in time, and the output of the two others can affect the input of the third, they shouldn't be voting at all.
You could view allowing for misphasing of the precogs as the bug. However, I would argue that the bug is that the precogs predict the future of humans and a select few humans have access to those predictions, namely the Precrime folks. This creates the opportunity for the output of two precogs to become the input of a third precog.
You could also see how the humans who created the Precrime system would have missed this bug. They probably never considered that one of them would be the killer.
Nobody's On Nobody's Side
The aid who helped Anderton get access to the precogs tells his wife Lisa who shows up in the lab. She helps him escape on her ship.
Once she understands the bug with misphased precogs, she realizes there may be several people convicted who would have never committed murder had they been given a chance to know their predicted future just like Anderton.
Her reasoning doesn't sway Anderton even though he is such an example himself. He is focused on getting the minority report to Kaplan to show that he has no intent of murdering him and to get his help.
Lisa presses on and says Anderton needs to understand that the minority report does not invalidate the majority report. That fact in turn shows that there was no conspiracy against him. No one had fiddled with the cards. Anderton was going to kill Kaplan but the knowledge of that made him change his own future. She wants him to turn himself in, otherwise the Precrime system will be discredited.
Eventually she pulls a gun on Anderton and forces him to steer the ship back to the police building instead of going to the army.
In a jolting twist, Fleming appears on the ship and disarms Lisa. He's been following Anderton and hid in the storage unit of Lisa's ship.
Fleming tells Anderton that Witwer, Lisa, and Kaplan are all in on the conspiracy. He starts to strangle Lisa and is going to throw her out of the ship.
Anderton strikes Fleming down and searches the man's jacket. He finds papers indicating that Fleming is working for Kaplan.
This is a short story so all the twists and turns above happen on just a couple of pages. I mostly have it here so you can follow how the story ends. But it does show why I said the characterization of Lisa is just half-sexist because here she is the person asking the valid questions.
This part did get me thinking of a non-fiction book I read recently – Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts by Annie Duke. It analyzes the fact that no decisions are made with perfect knowledge, you always make a bet to some extent. Duke's conclusion is that we should never judge decisions by outcomes, but rather by the quality of the decision based on the available facts.
Anderton's Real Future
As Anderton turns himself in, he learns that Kaplan has already been there to extract a copy of the minority report for himself.
Witwer accepts that the minority report clears Anderton's name. Their main problem now is that Kaplan intends to get Precrime abolished. He wants to get back to the good ol' days where the army ran the show and did their own police work (the story alludes to an Anglo-Chinese war in the past, possibly under martial law).
Kaplan's effort to abolish Precrime was the reason for the first predicted future where Anderton murdered the General. But now that Kaplan has the minority report, he feels confident that Anderton won't kill him. And since Witwer made the majority report public during the hunt for Anderton, the police now has to convict Anderton or admit that Precrime has flaws. Kaplan has a winning hand.
Anderton decides to review all three precogs' predictions. Precog Donna's tape has the original event with Precrime abolished and Anderton eventually shooting Kaplan. Precog Jerry has the superseding one where Anderton changes his mind based on seeing the majority report. Precog Mike's report, which together with Donna's created the majority, is quite different.
With the knowledge of Mike's report, Anderton goes to a military rally where Kaplan is expected to read the minority report, compare it with the majority report, and start the political campaign to disband Precrime.
During his speech, Kaplan mocks Anderton as being both the face of Precrime and somewhat of a failed killer.
Anderton kills Kaplan up on stage, fulfilling the prophecy of the majority report. It's the only winning move he has.
The next we see of Anderton, he and his wife are packing for a one-way trip to the frontier planets. There he'll serve his lifetime sentence. He explains to Witwer how both the majority and the minority reports were wrong:
"The three reports were consecutive," he explained. The first was 'Donna.' In that time-path, Kaplan told me of the plot and I promptly murdered him. 'Jerry,' phased slightly ahead of 'Donna,' used her report as data. He factored in my knowledge of the report. In that second time-path, all I wanted was to keep my job."
"And 'Mike' was the third report? That came after the minority report?" Witwer corrected himself. "I mean, it came last?"
"'Mike' was the last of the three, yes. Faced with the knowledge of the first report, I had decided not to kill Kaplan. That produced report two. But faced with that report, I changed my mind back."
The crucial bug manifested was that the first and third report, both claiming that Anderton would kill Kaplan, were assumed to reflect the same future, thus creating a majority report. But in reality, all three precogs predicted different futures in sequence.
This final twist is masterful. You as a reader think you got it when you realized that the minority still may have something important to say, just like in a democracy. But then the phasing bug played out twice and fooled you again. As you shall see, the movie doesn't at all make use of this plot twist and has its own take on majority vs minority reports.
I'm blown away by the fact that the hero of the story – Anderton – sacrifices his and his wife's lives on earth to keep Precrime going even though they know it's flawed. Lisa raised some hard questions but also seemed fine heading to the frontier planets. Our present day ethics, our view of liberal democracy, and our knowledge of corruption are why I reject this ending as positive. I don't know what readers thought in the 50s.
Works of fiction were allowed to be feel-bad back when The Minority Report was written. Maybe even expected to be? Colossus which I reviewed in my February 2022 newsletter ended on a somber note too. I wonder if we'll ever come back to such storytelling?
Another thought that lingers is how all the data collection about us today is driving us in the direction of Precrime. There needs to be a public discussion on the pros and cons of such prediction. Of course we want to predict and prevent terror and crime. But to what extent can we trust the actors with access to the data?
Finally, the fact that Dick got all of this into a short story of 32 pages is incredible.
This text was originally published in the May 2022 issue of the Hacker Chronicles newsletter. Subscribe below!
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