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5 Minutes With a Visionary: Eliezer Yudkowsky

Editor’s note: As part of CNBC’s “20 Under 20: Transforming Tomorrow” TV documentary, we interviewed thought leaders and visionaries who have paved the way for the next generation of entrepreneurs. In a series of Q&As called “5 Minutes with a Visionary,” we discover what has shaped and molded the careers of these innovators. The following interview was conducted via email.

Eliezer Yudkowsky is an artificial intelligence researcher focused on the singularity. Yudkowsky co-founded the nonprofit Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence in 2000, where he is currently employed as a full-time research fellow. He has no formal education, never having attended high school or college.

If you are a truly obsessed Harry Potter fan, it’s possible you have stumbled across Yudkowsky’s fan fiction story entitled, “Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality,” in which he takes the original story and retells it in an attempt to explain Harry Potter’s wizardry through science. As Yudkowsky’s website states, he is a “man who wears more than one hat.”

Q: What do you consider to be your greatest success as a technology/science leader?

My successes already accomplished have mostly been taking existing science and getting people to apply it in their everyday lives. Thanks to LessWrong.com there is now an active, growing community of people interested in refining their epistemic and instrumental rationality through the study of the cognitive science of known bugs in human reasoning, and comprehending the mathematics of probability theory and decision theory.

Q: What innovation in the last 20 years has had the most positive impact on your life?

I can't honestly say that I believe in the standard trope that change is accelerating; keeping things to just the last 20 years seems very restrictive. The cognitive science that has had such a huge impact on my life had its beginnings in the 1970s. Bayes's Rule, the central theorem of probability theory, though it's just now beginning to get popular, is two and a half centuries old. There are exceptions, like Google, but as a general rule, there's at least a 30-year gap between when something is invented, and when it's applied to the point that it starts really changing the world … I would say that the application of cognitive science to really change individual humans' lives has had a great positive impact on my life, and the application of the Web to make new communities form more easily than ever before has had a great positive impact on our community.

Q: What current challenge, when resolved, would do the most to change the world?

Anything that could give rise to smarter-than-human intelligence—in the form of Artificial Intelligence, brain-computer interfaces, or neuroscience-based human intelligence enhancement—wins hands down beyond contest as doing the most to change the world. Nothing else is even in the same league.

Q: If you had the world's intellectual elite all in one room, what thought-provoking questions would you pose for debate?

If I actually had them all in one room? Hm ... it'd be a toss-up between trying to convey how incredibly stupid our society is to spend billions of dollars marketing lipstick and less than a million dollars trying to figure out how to code a self-improving Artificial Intelligence with a stable goal system.

Q: What individual or innovator has had the biggest impact on society?

Once upon a time, there was a man who was convinced that he possessed a Great Idea. The Great Idea would unravel the mysteries of the universe, supersede the authority of the corrupt and error-ridden Establishment, confer high-magical powers upon its wielders, feed the hungry, heal the sick, and make the whole world a better place. The man was Francis Bacon. His Great Idea was the scientific method, and he was the only crackpot in all history to claim that level of benefit to humanity and turn out to be completely right. Or were you looking for someone more recent?

Editor's Note: This interview has been condensed and edited.

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