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Questions for the Superintelligent

Ouch! My computer Viewsonic monitor has stopped working! Luckily it’s still under warranty, but I still need to make do while I wait for a replacement. I’m thinking of buying a second monitor and living a 2 monitor existence (especially because  I’ll be doing more video editing).

Today has been a wash because of the computer problem (and other things). Tomorrow will probably be a wash as well. On a bright note, here’s a fun Digg interview with Bruno (i.e., Sascha Cohen).

The interview was full of reader-submitted questions, so Sascha had a lot of fun with them. But the interviewer himself was uncomfortable…truly one of the worst interviews in the world.

Speaking of bad interviews, here’s an interview with Maryilyn vos Savant (the woman with the highest IQ). This is a 50+ minute  interview, and one of the worst I’d ever sat through. The interviewer foolishly decided to throw out a lot of ideas — without really asking Marilyn anything of substance. Probably because of nervousness or insecurity, the interviewer  jabbered on about his question instead of  giving Marilyn enough time to  elaborate on her answers. I almost feel sorry for the interviewer; clearly he thought his chatty style was succeeding in eliciting responses from Marilyn. It wasn’t.

All he really needed to do was to give some open-ended questions and let Marilyn do the rest. Then,  he should ask a follow up question whenever he felt Marilyn hadn’t gone into detail or explained herself adequately. One of my favorite Charlie  Rose techniques is when someone makes a bold (or unsupported remark), he adds,  “Because?” and wait for the interviewee to explain.

By the way, even though the interviewer for vos Savant was incompetent, I  use several of the same interviewing techniques.  Informal, chatty, undirected, “off the record”. Sometimes if one person keeps a conversation going, the interviewee will feel inclined to jump in. I’ve taken college classes where the professor delivers a series of carefully controlled lectures (usually without anecdotes or debate). The one-sided nature of the delivery discourages students from jumping in with comments and questions.  These kinds of professors like to be dogmatic;  yes, there can sometimes be value in a  one sided conversation, but the speaker must be brilliant and willing to anticipate objections. In other kinds of classes, professors are always carrying on a conversation with students.   But if such a professor is too talkative, only the most assertive student will be able to have their remarks heard.

This may not be apparent to readers of this blog, but the ability to interview and ask questions is one of  my best skills. I don’t do interviews often, but the few that I’ve done (and especially this) have been outstanding. Of course, written interviews and spoken interviews are different beasts.  With written interviews, you can ask wordy questions (if only to have nuance to prevent the subject from giving an easy answer).  With spoken interviews, the trick is making your subject speak as much time as possible (while still retaining control over the interview itself).

I don’t deny that Marilyn vos Savant is brainy,  but that interview was unflattering and disappointing. I really didn’t hear anything amazing come from Marilyn. I didn’t hear a lot of original thoughts or perspectives. She struck me as a very conventional thinker. Maybe that’s one of the limitations of IQ as a measurement tool; it doesn’t suggest an ability to reach interesting conclusions. Marilyn’s sentences struck me as cautious and even lacking in curiosity. Aside from the fact that she didn’t venture too far away from topics of the meaning of intelligence, IQ and education (which was partially the fault of the interviewer), she didn’t seem willing to make bold claims or try to defend them.  She didn’t really have a sense of rhetoric or how to get a point across. The breadth of her knowledge seemed evident, and I have no doubt she could solve  a math or logic problem faster than I could. She didn’t speculate; she seemed hindered by her empiricism. She seemed determined not to say anything controversial (even though it was clear she had an independent mind).

I realize that it’s impossible to judge a person’s intelligence by how they present themselves during an interview. On the other hand, a person like Marilyn needed to be asked more provocative questions. Here is my own list of questions I’d ask a person like Marilyn.

  • Do more intelligent people like different kinds of music?
  • What is the relationship between intelligence and motivation in your own life?
  • How much of the cultivation of the mind depends on initiative and curiosity? How much of it depends on circumstances?
  • Can you learn a lot of things from average or uneducated people? Tell me about the most important thing you’ve learned from an uneducated person?
  • What intellectual feat in life are you most proud of?
  • Do you think that high intelligence means that you have a different set of values from most people?
  • True or false. High intelligence makes it more difficult to focus on a single task or goal.
  • To what extent is the life of a highly intelligent person richer or fuller than that of an average person? To what extent is it more impoverished?
  • Do brainy people have  more satisfying sex lives? More satisfying family relationships?
  • Do you feel that high intelligence can be a handicap for mastering certain kinds of skills? Which kinds?
  • Do all humans at some point have to choose one domain to master?
  • What kinds of questions are better pondered without consulting what previous thinkers have written about it?
  • Among other educated people, what kinds of ideas and attitudes infuriate you?
  • Is self-absorption a problem for you?
  • For what kinds of decisions is it appropriate for one’s personal emotions to provide guidance?
  • In order to pass legislation, politicians often need to boil down an issue into simpler terms. Is it possible to do this without stereotyping the opponent’s position or overlooking crucial details?
  • Looking back, do you wish that your parents played a different role in your upbringing? Should they have given you more autonomy? more guidance? More supervision?
  • Is it easy for you to go back to your childhood? What is the biggest difference between the adult version of yourself and the child version of yourself?
  • Do highly intelligent people have a hard time forming or maintaining successful relationships?
  • Do you believe that modern psychology is needlessly reductive? Can  psychology offer explanations and treatments  while still appreciating the complexity of human behaviour?
  • Have you noticed ways   in which lifestyle affects your mental acuity?
  • Are there subjects that you have to tried not to learn too much about?  Why?
  • What about growing older are you most curious about?
  • Looking back, what kinds of things do you wish you spent more time learning about? Less time?
  • What kinds of subjects interest you the least? Can you ever anticipate a time where this could change?
  • Is it reasonable to think that humans are not inclined to destroy themselves? What kinds of self-destructive tendencies in humans do you worry the most about?
  • Can you imagine a time where a robot or computer can possess the knowledge, experience and abilities  you possess now? If yes  (and if you were living during that time period), would you enjoy having a conversation with a robot version of yourself?
  • Can an intelligent person be totally aware of the degree to which one’s background influences (and prejudices) one’s personal beliefs?
  • Do the world’s religions strike you as founded in rationality? Was this rationality always present in the founder’s core ideas? Or does rationality result from the interpretation of these core ideas after acquiring more followers over the centuries?
  • Are highly intelligent people less susceptible to hopelessness during times of catastrophe?
  • Would you be comfortable in an egalitarian society? What kind of inequities are tolerable and what are not?
  • One cause of injustice is ignorance about the suffering of others. What is the best way to teach  empathy? Should this kind of instruction be mandated?
  • Assuming you were 20 and dedicated to the task, do you think it would be easy for a highly intelligent like person yourself to become amazingly wealthy? If you were to venture a guess, what percent of business success is a a result of  business acumen and what percent is a matter of dumb luck?
  • In your opinion, what things do  people waste too much  time on? What things do you think you waste too much time on?
  • Generalizations are dangerous because they are often unprovable and can be refuted by individual cases. Despite that, are there good reasons for making generalizations(either for argument’s sake or  as a shortcut for thought)?
  • What kinds of intellectual laziness are you sometimes guilty of?
  • Does human intelligence alone (apart from education or upbringing) make it easier for a person to be happy or content?
  • Name a human accomplishment that you are most in awe of a single person doing?
  • Can dogs appreciate Beethoven? Or any type of music?
  • In the year 2060, what will literature be like? What will people be reading (if anything)?
  • What thing have you been the most wrong about? What is the most notable prediction about the world you have made which turned out to be completely wrong about?
  • If scientific understanding allowed for better communication between humans and complex mammals, can you predict what thought or message from them which humans would find the most surprising?
  • Nobody can predict the future. What trend or idea gives you the most hope for the world 100 years from now?
  • Suppose you were forbidden to talk or communicate by handsigns for the rest of your life (like a monk). Could you do it? Would a permanent  “vow of silence” be certain to reduce the overall happiness with your life?

November 5 Update: Here is a list of the annual Edge questions posed to Scientists. I’m appending them here  even though they are somewhat open-ended.

  • 2010: How is the internet changing the way you think?
  • 2009: What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?
  • 2008: What have you changed your mind about? Why?
  • 2007 What are you optimistic about? Why?
  • 2006 “What is your dangerous idea?”
  • 2005 “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?”
  • 2004 “What’s Your Law?”
  • 2003 “What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?”
  • 2002 “What’s Your Question?”
  • 2001 “What Questions Have Disappeared?”
  • 2000 “What Is Today’s Most Important Unreported Story?”
  • 1999 “What Is The Most Important Invention In The Past Two Thousand Years?”
  • 1998 “What Questions Are You Asking Yourself?”

Update: I have decided to write my own book to answer all of these questions. Stay tuned!

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