Episode 46 – “A Most Unusual Camera”

Even small time crooks need to be able to predict the future. The story begins with a married couple, despairing over their meager haul from the robbery of a curio shop. Lamenting the fact that the stolen items are mostly worthless junk, they see the need to do a better job of predicting the value of future heists. The one item that stands out from their latest robbery is a camera, a most unusual camera.

The stolen camera is unusual in two respects. First, it develops pictures instantly, at a time before the invention of the Polaroid Camera. But more remarkably, it takes pictures of something that hasn’t yet happened, but will soon (in five minutes)  happen. It take pictures of an imminent future event.

Predicting the future is central to human nature. We believe that bread nourishes, that the sun will rise tomorrow, and that rhubarb is usually a purge, to use Hume’s examples. Were we unable to make predictions, we would be limited to the narrow sphere of our current sensory awareness and our memories of our sensory states. We would be unable to act. But our inductive inferences, even at their best, are limited.  It’s not that we can’t make highly specific predictions – I can predict that this piece of bread will nourish me. Rather, such specific predictions are ones that follow from generalizations, like the generalization that bread nourishes. The predictions made by the unusual camera are predictions of one-off, novel events.

In a singular out of character moment, one of the crooks realizes that the technology in his hands might be of use to science, and he vows to donate the camera to science for the benefit of humanity. But that plan vanishes, when he realizes that it can also be used to predict the outcome of horse races, and in a flash, they are off to the races.

“A Most Unusual Camera” is a morality tale. Extending our ability to predict the future might very well benefit humanity, when that technology finds itself in the right hands.

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