Do you like humans?

I have lately been playing around with Allo, an instant messaging mobile app by Google. Among other interesting features, the app comes with a virtual assistant which when asked its name tells the user (rather plainly) to call it her/his Google Assistant.

To begin with, the Google Assistant is meant to assist you in almost all your online and offline tasks. But what really got me interested in it were the smart (and sometimes, witty) replies it comes up with. Take for example, the following string of queries and replies:

How smart are you?
It might seem like I’m smart
But I’m just good at searching

How big is your family?
It takes a village to raise a virtual assistant

What’s your superpower?
If I had a superpower
I’d want to be a super-memory

How many roads must a man walk down?
The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind
But I’ll spare you my harmonica solo

Do you like humans?
I love humanity
You have the best questions
And the best dreams

Now, my objective here is surely not to review the app or the virtual assistant (or worse, to add to the pile of Siri vs Cortana sort of articles). And anyway, to many, the above string may appear rather uninteresting. What actually prompted me to write this post was the reply to the last question in the string.

The reply just came out from a large chunk of code written by the developers at Google (with probably some inputs gained through machine learning) and there’s nothing much special about it from the AI-development perspective. But the idea behind the reply is important. Humanity does have wonderful questions and dreams. It is this innate human curiosity that has resulted in the technology at our disposal today (that includes virtual personal assistants like Allo’s, too).

This belief (in the importance of questioning), however, has an interesting aspect to it; the conundrum of which questions are important. For instance, is the question of what precursors are there to an earthquake more important than that of what lies inside the event horizon of a black hole? Or that of finding cures to cancer more important than finding a proof of the celebrated Riemann hypothesis? Are some questions really more important than others?

I do not know the answer. It does appear that finding answers to some questions have a more immediate impact and usefulness. But what about the other seemingly less useful ones? There have been multiple instances when fundamental research, which appears to be undertaken only to answer not-as-important questions, has led to enormous developments in fields that directly cater to humanity. But even if it did not, how appropriate would it be to call it less important?

As I said, I do not have an answer.

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