Friday, March 6, 2015


I occasionally hear someone say "I'm open-minded, but only to good ideas." This implies that, as soon as they're exposed to an idea, they *immediately* know whether it's a good idea or not even without taking any time to consider it.

This is an amazing and miraculous talent to have -- the ability to instantly recognize an idea as good or bad. I, for one, usually have to *think* for at least a couple seconds before I know with any certainty whether an idea is good or not (hell, even when I *know* an idea is bad, I usually try to think out its consequences anyway just to make sure I'm not missing anything).

So, the next time I meet someone who says that, I'm going to tie them up in front of a computer screen and force them to watch a program that generates every series of English words in increasing lexicographic order. By their own claim, whenever the series of words describes a good idea, their response will be open-mindedness, which has a somatic feeling which I suspect would lend itself to being detected by an existing scan, possibly fMRI.

The principle is this: you show this person a sentence describing an idea, e.g. "Increase funding of space exploration by X dollars". If the person is open-minded to it, then it's a good idea. If not, reject it. Move on to next sentence.

I know this sounds extreme, but consider all the potential good ideas that nobody has detected yet. Cold fusion, feasible quantum computing, cures for all known diseases -- it would be an extreme act of stupidity NOT to at least try it. Think of the billions of lives that could be saved or improved, compared to the miniscule cost of this one person's freedom and wellbeing.

The human visual system can quite comfortably process visual information at 10 "frames per second" for lack of a better term. Provided we feed the person while they're staring at the screen, and allow them to sleep about a third of the time, I figure we can have them looking at ideas for about 16 hours a day, and we could probably keep the person alive for about 50 years if we had to (and we DO have to -- we can't let an opportunity like this go to waste).

So, at 10 ideas per second, 16 hours a day for 50 years, that adds up to them being exposed to about 10 billion ideas in a lifetime. One issue is the sheer number of possible English sentences. It is estimated that each letter in English represents about 0.6 to 1.2 bits of information (I'll round it to 1 bit). So, with a little cleverness, we would be guaranteed to expose this person to every 33-character English sentence if we wanted to. If we restrict it even more to get rid of obviously nonsensical phrases or restrict ourselves to vocabulary in the fields of ideas we want evaluated (e.g. medicine, engineering, economics) we could probably get even more value out of them.

I mean, unless they're lying about being open-minded, or about being open-minded only to good ideas. But I'm pretty sure nobody would do that.

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It Seemed Funny at the Time by Ben Buckley is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 2.5 Canada License.