In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the supercomputer Deep Thought takes 7.5 million years of calculation to determine that the answer to the “ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything” is 42.
I doubt that Douglas Adams, who published this brilliant novel over two decades ago, anticipated that today we would be turning to ChatGPT or other generative AI technology to provide answers to all of our questions.
He did, however, recognize that people would be concerned about AI taking over our jobs. Moments after Deep Thought starts to work on its arduous task, representatives of the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Thinking Persons burst into the ceremony, demanding that Deep Thought be shut off:
“You just let the machines get on with the adding up,” warned Majikthise, “and we’ll take care of the eternal verities thank you very much. You want to check your legal position, you do, mate. Under law the Quest for Ultimate Truth is quite clearly the inalienable prerogative of your working thinkers. Any bloody machine goes and actually finds it and we’re straight out of a job, aren’t we? I mean, what’s the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?”
After revealing how long it will take to come up with an answer, Deep Thought wins them over as follows:
“It occurs to me that running a programme like this is bound to create an enormous amount of popular publicity for the whole area of philosophy in general. Everyone’s going to have their own theories about what answer I’m eventually to come up with, and who better to capitalize on that media market than you yourself? So long as you can keep disagreeing with each other violently enough and slagging each other off in the popular press, you can keep yourself on the gravy train for life. How does that sound?”
When Deep Thought provides its answer 7.5 million years later, people suddenly realize that they never considered what question they had asked it to answer. Deep Thought informs them that it will take another 10 million years, and a more powerful computer that incorporates living beings into its computational matrix, to determine the ultimate question.
I doubt that most people who read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are looking for deep meaning in its pages. Nonetheless, there’s a deep insight here: coming up with the right questions is much harder than coming up with the right answers.
As far as we’ve advanced in using machines to answer questions, we haven’t even started using machines to ask them. The sudden advances in AI have taught me humility when it comes to predicting the future, but I suspect that we humans will be the ones asking the questions for a while. It’s hard to imagine RLHF determining which questions are worth asking.
So, thank you, Douglas Adams, for reminding us what it means to be human. And to everybody else, don’t panic!