What would you ask an Oracle?

 It’s my favorite question. I could talk about this to anybody (from any background, of any age and level of intelligence) for hours.

Assume you met an Oracle, an entity capable of answering any question with factual correctness. What question would you ask it?

There are a couple of things worth nothing before we get to the answer. An Oracle does not have an opinion although it knows, for example, what opinions you have on everything so it can tell what you would like and dislike. Some questions may be undecidable — we live, after all (we think), in a world that’s nondeterministic at a micro scale (try asking the Oracle if the cat is dead), and thus probably also a macro scale.

Dealing with an Oracle isn’t as simple as one may think. On one hand, it’s unclear, once you have all the answers, what your goal should be (which is why I think people don’t really know their goals in life and why everyone should have a purpose in life). Is it to make a lot of money? Or do something good for the society?

Ah, the age-old notion of good. What does it mean to do something good? It’s easy to assess the merit of actions on a local scale, but what is good in a short-term may be disastrous in a long-term (like this charity that donates malaria nets to families in Africa — seemingly a good thing — that ended up driving a lot of local net manufacturers out of business).

Taking this to the very extreme (oh boy, I’m going to make some enemies now), what if Hitler’s contribution to mankind was net positive? Let me explain. Assuming that we consider the metric of “goodness” to be survival of mankind — a highly utilitarian view. What if, without Hitler and all of the atrocities committed by him, mankind had never been scarred and hadn’t put guardrails in place to avoid a similar disaster in the future; and as a result another insane dictator had come to power and caused a much greater devastation? Of course this does not at all excuse Hitler, but what would the Oracle say if you asked, all else being equal, if Hitler was a net positive? (or, to put it differently–not equivalently, if the hypothetical above was true, would you kill Hitler before he came to power?).

A lot of people fail to realize that for a large set of questions, we would probably beunable to understand the answer. A lot people would like to know (presumably out of curiosity and nothing else–nothing wrong with it, let’s just call a spade a spade), say, why the universe was created (or even how). The Oracle may have an answer but it’s possible that our brains are unable to grasp it, just like the brains of Homo Neanderthalus were probably unable to grasp quantum mechanism, even with a lifetime of education.

There are some variations on the Oracle question that in my view make for an interesting conversation. What if you forgot your encounter with the Oracle after you met it (that’s a cruel one)? Or what if you forgot everything but you could take away one letter-sized sheet of paper with stuff written on it (that’s my personal favorite).

In case you’re curious – here is what I would ask the Oracle:

Fill out this piece of paper with the most obvious things we humans haven’t discovered yet.

(By “obvious” I mean the things that when you hear them, you say “Of course! Why didn’t anybody think about it yet”). I would ask the Oracle to order them by obviousness (or the shock value to all of mankind when they find out). Why would I ask for that, specifically? I think it’s an elegant way to take advantage of an all-knowing entity in a way that doesn’t get me trapped in the difficulties described above.

If I could fill up another page, I would ask for the Oracle to explain how we can harness energy in a renewable (read: by harnessing the power of the Sun) and efficient way. Or maybe that would be the first thing I ask.