Fiction: The perfect (super) crime

I’ve been knocking around ideas in my head for a fictional work of indeterminate length. It’s still very much in the planning stages, but I’ve realized I have enough of an idea of what’s going to happen to write the following in-universe blog post. Probably reflects too much time spent on TVTropes, as well as some influences from Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Enjoy.

Suppose you had precognition–the power to see the future. Suppose you wanted to use your power purely for personal gain, but for whatever reason didn’t want to register your power and make money legitimately (maybe you figure you can make more money that way, maybe you just don’t want the attention.) What do you do?

What I wouldn’t do is do what I’ve sometimes seen super-powered cheats do in fiction, which is walk into a casino and behave like any other casino-goer, except that they’re cheating. Here’s why that’s stupid: Normally, people in casinos make many small bets, which is the way to go if you’re just trying to have fun and draw out the length of time you can spend gambling. However, the more bets you cheat on, the more obvious it will be that you’re cheating.

Imagine repeatedly betting $10 on whatever number you know will win on a roulette wheel. The first time you do this, you will win $350, and the odds that that would have had you been honest will be 1 in 38. The second time you do this, your total profits will go up to $700, but the odds of what just happened (had you been honest) will drop to 1 in 1444. The third time, you’ll have won $1,050, against 1 in 54872 odds. By the time you’ve made $2,100, it will have been against odds worse than 1 in 3 billion, and you’ll be kicked out of the casino (if you haven’t been already).

There was actually a story like this involving a super who could influence machinery. He wasn’t quite as stupid as I’ve just imagined our hypothetical cheat being, but his basic mistake was the same: he gave himself “good luck” wildly out of proportion to the amount of money he was winning, and got caught and sent to prison before he managed to win as much as he had been hoping to.

To avoid this problem, here’s what I would do if I were an unscrupulous precognitive: first I’d do some testing of my ability, in private, in a way that no one else would know about (writing down lottery number predictions and then tearing them up once I found out whether the prediction was right, for example). If I found out my ability was 100% accurate, I’d then do some research and find the highest-payout single bet I could afford to make given my current savings. Then, after collecting my winnings, I’d resolve never to use my ability again unless my life was at stake.

It’s possible that a few people would think it was suspicious that I (say) won the lottery on my first attempt, but my guess is that most people wouldn’t suspect anything, and at any rate winning the lottery on your first try isn’t that improbable, so no one would be able to prove anything. On top of that, if I were really worried about the issue, I could spend a few months deliberately picking losing numbers, just to cover for myself.

Has this ever happened with the lottery? Who knows! Though the odds of any given lottery winner having used a power to cheat seem pretty low, even if you focus on people who won with their first ticket. We don’t even know if there are any precognitives out there at all, but my guess is that at most the number of precogs is a fraction of the number of yearly lottery winners. It’s probably smaller than even the number of people who would have won the lottery on their first ticket without cheating.

On the other hand, there is one case where I think it is likely that something like the above scenario played out: the Wunder twins’ decision to massively outbid everyone else when they hired Duwell. I know saying that the Wunder twins are obviously superheroes has become cliche, but honestly I think precognition may be the best explanation for their decision.

First, while right now it’s tempting to say that hiring Duwell was the smart move and that of course whatever corporation got her would see its value go through the roof, that’s largely hindsight bias talking. At the time, the conventional wisdom was that the Wunders were throwing their money away buying their own personal superhero.

And it’s not clear people were wrong to think this. When Wonder Holdings, Inc. (as it was called back then) hired Duwell, she was basically just using her abilities to mess around, gobbling up graduate degrees for fun, and hadn’t done anything of clear practical value. If anybody (anybody with money, that is) had had any idea how well the deal would turn out for the Wunders, they would have tried to outbid them.

It’s worth pointing out that, on this hypothesis, only one of the Wunders need have a power. In principle, the other twin might not even realize what happened, though probably the twin with the power would have had to let the other one in on their secret to get them to go along with the plan. Still, that means that even if we knew the general hypothesis to be true, we still wouldn’t know which Wunder twin was the unregistered super. And if the twins are being smart, it would make sense for them to avoid using any unregistered power after initially foreseeing what Duwell would do, because every additional use of a power is another chance of getting caught (and as with roulette, the improbabilities multiply).

I can’t prove any of this. But if I’m right, the implications are slightly creepy. In the comic books, supervillains commit crimes out of some compulsion or obsession. It never occurs to them to retire to a cozy spot somewhere in South America or Thailand after pulling off one big heist. This guarantees that, even if they win in the short-term, the heroes will have a chance to catch them eventually. But in our actual post-’99 world, we have to live with the possibility that one of the world’s two richest people may be a super-criminal who will never, ever be caught because they had the good sense to quit after a single well-chosen illegal use of their power.

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