Questions have a hot new role in the age of AI: Stirring human minds

Today’s AI-powered answer providers have developed the intelligence to make sense of the information they have been fed or given access to.  (Photo: iStock)
Today’s AI-powered answer providers have developed the intelligence to make sense of the information they have been fed or given access to. (Photo: iStock)

Summary

  • Curiosity is what sets humans apart from machines, as only we know what to ask that really matters. And the questions we ask will determine our future.

AI-powered ‘answer engines’ have arrived. A few days ago, The Wall Street Journal reported how new companies like ArcSearch and Consensus are changing the rules of web search as we knew it. As compared to search engines that at best threw up a few links to relevant articles, these new AI-run search engines not only provide the most relevant information on a topic, but also intelligent summaries of various articles. So the collation of knowledge is no longer a difficult task.

Until now, individuals were judged by the knowledge they acquired. Our educational system gauged how much of it a student has gathered and how much a test-taker can regurgitate during exam time. Whether it was the spelling of a word or the date when a particular war started, what mattered most was whether the student had an exact memory of it to summon at a particular moment. Even at higher levels of education, what mattered most was how much one could remember of what was taught.

With the emergence of Large Language Models (LLM), storing a vast amount of information is very easy. The storage capacity of the human brain is not even a smidgen compared to that of cloud storage. For that matter, forgetting much of what one learns is an essential part of the human brain’s functioning. Today’s AI-powered answer providers have developed the intelligence to make sense of the information they have been fed or given access to. With this, data storage in human brains is becoming redundant and perhaps also the exercise of our faculties to interpret it.

So, what should humans do? Allow machines to do all the thinking and let the human brain atrophy under the dulling effects of intellectual inactivity?

No doubt, AI tools can provide answers to any question. But there is something the machine cannot do. Machines are not curious. They do not know the questions it should find answers for. Only humans know what questions they need answers for. And the starting point of all great innovations is a question. What is the sea route from Europe to India? This question not only delivered discoveries in ship-building technology, but helped expand access to other countries and continents across the high seas. From the time of Socrates, the art of asking questions has been in practice. Much like any other art, there is much to learn about the art of asking questions.

First of all, one has to develop a certain mindset to start asking useful questions. These usually emanate from those who are uncomfortable with the status quo. While those who are content with the situation they are in can bask in the comfort of it, people who experience discontent are far likelier to start asking questions on how the existing scenario could be improved.

For years, computers were seen as equipment meant only for the corporate world. Even the best of technocrats never questioned that status quo. It took Apple Inc’s co-founder Steve Jobs to ask why digital technology should not be put to personal use. The rest is history.

We have all grown up in environments where questioning elders or existing practices was considered anathema. Organized religions make sure that none of their beliefs is ever questioned. Many of the world’s powerful people do not like being questioned. Some even consider questions a jolt to their authority. All this means many existing beliefs and practices are set in stone. Given this scenario, developing a healthy disrespect for the status quo is a prerequisite for the emergence of questioning behaviour.

The questions raised should be evocative. They should provoke even the experts in a field and create a healthy tension among them. In 1900, David Hilbert, a famous mathematician, asked 23 crucial questions for mathematicians to solve by the end of the century. These questions, now known as Hilbert problems, influenced mathematical research throughout the 20th century. More than a century later, only 10 of those 23 problems have been solved. How does one develop the ability to ask such evocative questions that keep even experts awake for more than a century?

Evocative questions can come only from a mind that is willing to delve deeply into a problem at hand. Take the question of why an apple falls downwards. While various stories of it abound, it did not pop into Issac Newton’s brain in a flash, as often depicted. It was a result of a whole year’s research he was doing in a lab at Cambridge University. Because of a plague epidemic back then, he had taken a break from research and was resting at his aunt’s house. That is when all the work he was doing for years got encapsulated in a single significant question. The quality of a question is directly correlated with one’s depth of knowledge in a field.

In today’s fast changing corporate landscape, continuous learning is one habit all corporate leaders want to inculcate across their organizations. With much knowledge easily made available by AI technology, how does one create a yearning for learning? This is where the use of good questions can help. Asking questions can also create commitment. Individuals who ask questions are more motivated to take ownership of their learning. The more the questions an individual asks, the better will be that person’s eagerness to learn.

In these times of AI-powered answering machines, human expertise will be evaluated by this question: What is the most evocative question you have ever asked?

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