Questioning in the age of AI

by | Questionology

We’re living in a time of “exponential change,” notes John Seely Brown, former chief scientist at Xerox Corporation, who headed up its famous Palo Alto Research Center.

In particular, the rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) stands out as a transformative force. With AI’s ability to sift through vast amounts of data and provide quick answers, the landscape of information access has drastically shifted. However, as Brown highlights, amidst this information overload, the ability to discern context and validity becomes paramount.

In a world where AI provides answers, the skill of asking the right questions becomes more critical than ever.

“What matters now is your ability to triangulate, to look at something from multiple sources,” Brown says. That can involve “asking all kinds of peripheral questions,” he notes, such as What is the agenda behind this information? How current is it? How does it connect with other information I’m finding?

The more we’re deluged with information, with “facts” (which may or may not be), views, appeals, and choices, the more we must be able to sift, sort, and make sense of it all through rigorous inquiry.

For the most part, technology has always been better suited to responding to questions—not so good at asking them. Picasso was onto this truth sixty years ago when he commented, “Computers are useless—they only give you answers.”

Indeed, answers are more available to us than ever before. The emergence of AI chat and search tools from industry giants like Google, Microsoft, and OpenAI has opened floodgates of information. However, the efficacy of these tools hinges on the quality of the questions posed to them.

Enter the “prompt engineer,” a new breed of tech specialist akin to a master questioner. The engineers use technical buzzwords (zero-shot prompting, knowledge generation prompting) to describe their work, but it closely parallels what a highly-skilled journalist does when interviewing a source: shifting as needed from open-ended queries to more targeted and specific ones, using follow-ups to delve deeper on an answer, always nudging and guiding the interviewee (in this case, the AI bot) to stay on topic and on track.

The only problem? The interviewee happens to be inherently unreliable—given to sometimes getting things wrong, yet seeming as if it knows exactly what it’s talking about. This may change, and perhaps soon, but as of this writing, AI still grapples with inaccuracies and biases.

Which brings us back to Seely’s earlier point: More than ever, in the era of AI, we’ll need the analytical questioning skills of a good critical thinker, who can sift through information and figure out what makes sense and what doesn’t, what’s true or false, what’s relevant and what isn’t.

In addition to our critical thinking skills, the unique human capacity for curiosity, creativity, and divergent thinking also sets us apart from AI.

Until machines can replicate these traits (which may very well happen), AI will not be able to formulate the kind of original, counterintuitive, and unpredictable questions that an innovative thinker—or even just your average four-year-old—can produce.


The post above was partly written by AI; I fed my original writing to ChatGPT for an edit and what came back was surprisingly useful. But I still found myself going back to my original text to restore important material that ChatGPT had deleted, and to re-insert colorful phrases that had been replaced by more banal ones. Which kind of underscores the point: to get the best results from AI, we still need to apply our own critical judgment and creativity.

Postscript 2:

I also asked ChatGPT for its own take on “the importance of questioning in the age of AI.” Here is an excerpt from the response:

“In the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI), the importance of asking questions cannot be overstated. While AI technologies have revolutionized numerous aspects of our lives, from streamlining processes to enhancing decision-making, they also present unique challenges and considerations. One such challenge is ensuring that AI systems are transparent, accountable, and aligned with human values. Asking the right questions becomes pivotal in navigating these complexities and harnessing the full potential of AI for the benefit of society.

“Ultimately, the importance of asking questions in the age of AI lies in empowering individuals to navigate the complex landscape of technology responsibly. In a rapidly evolving digital era, where the boundaries between humans and machines blur, asking the right questions remains essential for shaping a future where AI serves as a force for good.”

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