Oracles, Modern and Ancient

In the ancient world, it used to be that different cities or regions would have an oracle to whom people could go and ask a question. The most famous of these was the Oracle at Delphi. There was once a king, King Croesus, who ruled Lydia (near present-day Turkey) around 550 B.C. He was intrigued by all of these oracles around the world. So he commissioned seven emissaries to go out to seven certain oracles around the world and on a predetermined day, let’s say July 12, at a predetermined time, say 3:00 p.m. Lydian time, each emissary was to ask his respective oracle a question:

“What is King Croesus doing right now?”

The emissaries, who themselves did not know the correct answer, were to bring the replies of the oracles back to the king.

The Oracle at Delphi answered correctly. She said, “At this very moment, King Croesus is making turtle and goat soup.” He was, in fact, making this soup, his favorite dish. And Croesus was so amazed that he endowed the Oracle at Delphi with all kinds of gifts and planned to run all-important questions by this oracle. Wouldn’t you?

The problem with this decision was that the answers the oracles gave were somewhat vague or odd sounding. Scholars today are pretty sure that the oracle in Delphi was inadvertently breathing gases that rose from the cave in which she sat. These gases pretty much made the oracle loopy, like the famous “David after the Dentist” video on YouTube. This accounted for her odd answers.

In any event, King Croesus had it in his mind to wage war against the Persians, so he asked the Oracle:

“Should I attack the Persians?”

The oracle responded that if he crossed the river Halys and invaded Persia, a mighty empire would fall. Croesus heard what he wanted to hear and interpreted this as a good sign. But it turns out the Oracle meant King Croesus’s empire would fall. Croesus attacked, was defeated, and killed.

I tell this story to make a comparison between modern times and the past. In the ancient world, man wanted guidance from the gods on what he should do. He wanted the wisdom of the gods. It is wisdom that King Solomon asked God for, not intelligence. In the modern era, we are confident in our wisdom and instead want information.

Think of how the computer in the Star Trek universe was a purely factual machine. Its purpose was to answer factual questions “Computer, what is the closest planet with dilythium crystals?”- not wisdom questions, “Computer, should we go there?”

It is often said that knowledge is power. I think there is truth in this in as much that knowledge (information) can help you make good decisions. But putting knowledge into action requires wisdom. It requires knowing what you should do in a given situation. So really, wisdom is power.

I think that is what artificial intelligence will deliver. It will make us all wise, all able to learn from the life experiences of each other. Just like Amazon is really good at suggesting books I like, the amount of data we are presently collecting will be combined with machine learning that will advise every decision we have to make. In the future, everyone will be wiser than anyone has ever been.

About Byron Reese

Author, speaker, technologist, entrepreneur, historian and world traveler, Byron examines the intersection of history, technology and the future, and enjoys sharing his keen perspectives for solving many of our global problems.

Publisher of Gigaom and author of “Infinite Progress: How Technology and the Internet Will End Ignorance, Disease, Hunger, Poverty, and War,” Byron is currently working on his upcoming book “Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity,” set to be published in 2017 by Atria, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Whether it be articles, interviews or keynotes, Byron brings his experience as a technologist, passion for history, and proven business acumen to illuminate how today’s technology can solve many of our biggest global challenges.

If you would like to book Byron as a speaker, contact him at

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