Artificial Intelligence Increases the Importance of Questions

Every analyst and researcher knows — the better the question the better the answer. Kevin Kelly (@kevin2kelly), founding Executive Editor of Wired magazine, insists there has never been a more important time in history to ask good questions because artificial intelligence has made getting answers cheap.[1] According to Kelly, there is no lack of questions to be asked. “The paradox of science,” he writes, “is that every answer we uncover yields at least two brand new questions.” He continues:

“We don’t know nothin’ relative to what could be known. Thus, even though our knowledge is expanding exponentially, our questions are expanding exponentially faster. And as mathematicians will tell you, the widening gap between two exponential curves is itself an exponential curve. That gap between questions and answers is our ignorance, and it is growing exponentially. We have no reason to expect this to reverse in the future. The more disruptive a technology or tool is, the more disruptive the questions it will breed. We can expect future technologies such as artificial intelligence, genetic manipulation and quantum computing (to name a few on the near horizon) to unleash a barrage of new huge questions we could have never thought to ask before. In fact, it’s a safe bet that we have not asked our biggest questions yet.”

While I agree with Kelly, he makes it sound like good questions are found as easily as a five-year-old in a game of hide and seek — they aren’t. Questions are easy to ask; but, good questions need to be crafted. In a previous article, I wrote, “We’ve all been in classrooms or meetings when the person in charge (be it a teacher or facilitator) has stated, ‘There are no dumb questions.’ Of course there are! We’ve all seen the lists of supposedly real questions asked by trial lawyers in court; such as: ‘Now doctor, isn’t it true that when a person dies in his sleep, in most cases he just passes quietly away and doesn’t know anything about it until the next morning?’ Comedian Bill Engvall believes that people who ask dumb questions should have to wear a sign that says, ‘I’m Stupid.’ For example, he says: ‘Last time I had a flat tire, I pulled my truck into one of those side-of-the-road gas stations. The attendant walks out, looks at my truck, looks at me, and I SWEAR he said, “Tire go flat?” I couldn’t resist. I said, “Nope. I was driving around and those other three just swelled right up on me. Here’s your sign.”‘ Don’t get me wrong. If you don’t know something, you should ask a question.”[2] My point is that dumb questions are thoughtless questions and result in dumb answers. Good questions, on the other hand, require thoughtfulness and result in knowledge.

The Importance of Questions

Three professors from the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans (@joshgans), and Avi Goldfarb (@avicgoldfarb), make a profound observation about the value of technology. “Technological revolutions,” they write, “tend to involve some important activity becoming cheap.”[3] If you apply that notion to what Kelly is saying, you can understand why he is excited about the times in which we live. “While the answer machine can expand instant answers infinitely,” writes Kelly, “our time to form the next question is very limited. There is an asymmetry in the work needed to generate a good question versus the work and speed needed to absorb an answer. While answers become cheap, our questions become valuable. This is the inverse of the situation for the past millennia, when it was easier to ask a question than to answer it.” In other words, because answers are cheap, we need good questions to spark a knowledge revolution that will propel mankind towards a better future. Kelly continues:

“Pablo Picasso brilliantly anticipated this inversion in 1964 when he told the writer William Fifield, ‘Computers are useless. They only give you answers.’ There is great opportunity and a lot of money to be made in developing new technologies to provide instant, cheap, correct answers to the world’s billions of questions every minute. … Answers are on their way to becoming a commodity. It will not be an exaggeration to say that if you want an answer in the future you will ask a machine. It will deliver a great one for free. The role of humans, at least for a while, will be to ask questions. To ask a great question will be seen as the mark of an educated person. A great question, ironically, produces not only a good answer, but also more good follow-up questions. Great question creators will be seen, properly, as the engines that generate the new industries, new brands and new possibilities that our restless species can explore. A good question is worth a million good answers. Questioning is simply more powerful than answering.”

What he says is profound. If we want our children to succeed in a future that is hard to predict, the best thing we can teach them is how to ask good questions. Trevor Bond, a former teacher and principal, writes, “A learner is by nature a questioner.”[4] To underscore that point, he cites the late Neil Postman, who stated, “All our knowledge results from questions, which is another way of saying that questioning is our most important intellectual tool.” Maurice J. Elias, Professor of Psychology and Director of Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab, agrees that asking questions lies at the heart of learning. “The brain responds to questions in ways that we now describe as social, emotional, and cognitive development,” he writes. “Questions create the challenges that make us learn.”[5]

Teaching our Children to ask Good Questions

Asking good questions, writes Lee Watanabe Crockett, “lets us clearly define problems and expectations. Students’ research becomes more productive. They have better team communication. It lets them view challenges proactively. It encourages deeper reflection and better learning processes. Overall, there’s just no downside to it. So how do we actually do it?”[6] He goes on to suggest a list of things that are the result of asking good questions. Asking good questions can:

  • foster critical thinking skills
  • boost self-confidence
  • enhance creativity
  • strengthen relationships/partnerships
  • establish trust
  • exercise your memory
  • develop oral communication skills
  • encourage good listening
  • help you become invested in the problem
  • encourage others to ask questions
  • spark lively and productive discussions
  • open your mind to other opinions/beliefs
  • protect you from making mistakes
  • make work more productive
  • make solutions more effective
  • lead you to new discoveries
  • help you make better choices/decisions

“The art of asking good questions isn’t lost,” writes Crockett, “It never was. If we let our students know that, we’ve given them a great gift. They have permission to be curious and creative. They get to think and question in a way that helps them become better thinkers.” A study by the U.S. Department of Labor concludes, “65 percent of today’s schoolchildren will eventually be employed in jobs that have yet to be created.”[7] One of the best ways we can help them prepare to fill those jobs is by teaching them how to ask good questions.

Summary

Paul Sloane (@PaulSloane), writes, “If it is obvious that asking questions is such a powerful way of learning why do we stop asking questions? For some people the reason is that they are lazy. They assume they know all the main things they need to know and they do not bother to ask more. They cling to their beliefs and remain certain in their assumptions — yet they often end up looking foolish. Other people are afraid that by asking questions they will look weak, ignorant or unsure. They like to give the impression that they are decisive and in command of the relevant issues. They fear that asking questions might introduce uncertainty or show them in a poor light. In fact asking questions is a sign of strength and intelligence — not a sign of weakness or uncertainty. Great leaders constantly ask questions and are well aware that they do not have all the answers.”[8] Questions are important for the future of humankind. Kelly sums it up this way, “If answers indeed become a commodity, questions become the new wealth.” Because obtaining answers is getting cheaper every day, we are sitting on the cusp of a new knowledge revolution. Questions are the sparks that will ignite that revolution.

Footnotes
[1] Kevin Kelly, “With AI, Answers Are Cheap, But Questions Are The Future,” Longitudes, 9 March 2017.
[2] Stephen DeAngelis, “Big Data Analytics: Good Questions Result in Better Answers,” Enterra Insights, 10 June 2013.
[3] Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans, and Avi Goldfarb, “The Simple Economics of Machine Intelligence,” Harvard Business Review, 17 November 2016.
[4] Trevor Bond, “The Importance of Questioning,” Quest.
[5] Maurice J. Elias, “The Importance of Asking Questions to Promote Higher-Order Competencies,” Edutopia, 8 July 2014.
[6] Lee Watanabe Crockett, “Why Our Students Must Learn the Art of Asking Good Questions,” Global Digital Citizen Foundation, 1 March 2017.
[7] Ira Wolfe, “65 Percent of Today’s Students Will Be Employed in Jobs That Don’t Exist Yet,” Success Performance Solutions, 26 August 2013.
[8] Paul Sloane, “Ask questions: The Single Most Important Habit for Innovative Thinkers,” InformationManagement.se, 9 December 2008.

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