This is a Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality fan-fiction which contains spoilers. If you haven't, you should read or listen to Eliezer Yudkowsky's original work before reading this.
<< Chapter 2
Delicate coils of patchouli incense wafted through Professor Trelawney’s classroom, spiralling up through streamers of Tibetan prayer flags and coalescing in a thick cloud around the various dream catchers and crystals which lined the ceiling. It was only ten minutes into Mrs Trelawney’s Divination class and Harry's mind was already wandering.
“Today we will be practicing the ancient art of clairvoyance. That is, the detection of magical objects using our powers of extra-sensory perception.”
Harry and Hermione sat at the very back of the class on low, uncomfortable meditation cushions. Back here, they could at least talk without being noticed.
Harry had explained that discovering the fundamental equations of magic was still the ultimate goal, but that they should start by investigating intelligence enhancing magic first. If they could crack that, everything else would be easier. And any initial progress would make subsequent progress easier, in what Harry had described as an intelligence explosion.
Hermione, it seemed, was just happy to move on to something that involved metaphorical rather than literal explosions.
But for all the excitement, it wasn’t obvious where to start. Harry’s reflex when faced with a confusing problem was to set a 5 minute timer on his wristwatch and to write down as many open questions as he could. At the top of his parchment he wrote the following prompt
What questions, if I knew their answers, would make this problem easy to solve?
It was a way of cataloguing unknowns, noticing areas of confusion and spotting holes in your mental model – which could then be investigated one by one. Often all you needed was a single thread to pull on to get you going.
This time, though, it took 4 minutes to realise he wasn’t clear on even the most basic question of all.
“Hermione, what does the word intelligence mean?”
“It’s your ability to think and solve problems, isn’t it? Humans have it more than dogs. Dogs have it more than slugs. And there are IQ tests which are supposed to measure it.”
“Right, and IQ tests are about how well you can solve certain kinds of standardized reasoning problems,” Harry added.
He thought of IQ tests as measuring something analogous to the processing speed of your brain – how effectively and quickly you could work through the logical steps in a reasoning problem whilst keeping everything clear in your head as you went.
But if IQ was the ability to speed along a particular path of reasoning, that wasn’t the same as knowing which paths were worth traveling down in the first place.
“I don’t think IQ captures everything we’re after,” continued Harry. “But it is a real thing and if we could find a way of boosting that kind of intelligence, perhaps by a lot, that might get us a long way towards what we want.”
“But how would we even go about boosting IQ?” asked Hermione. “We’ve already searched the library for any spells like that and got nowhere. Even Professor Quirrel hadn’t heard of a spell like that.”
She was right. If magic like that existed it would be so incredibly powerful that it would be the decisive factor in every wizarding war in history – and it wasn’t mentioned in any of the history books.
“What we’re looking for is something where we might have a plausible advantage. There needs to be a reason why nobody else has thought of doing it. A reason why it's not in any of the library books.”
Knowing that there existed a set of standardized questions that measured some admittedly important difference in the way different human brains performed wasn’t the same as knowing what caused that difference. IQ was down to about 50% genetic factors, which had some possibly very complex interaction with childhood environment. But Harry suspected they would need to know what was going on far more clearly than that to make any progress.
According to all the neuroscience and cognitive psychology Harry knew, the mind was a black box as far as those kinds of questions were concerned. And so far, their study of psychomagic hadn’t revealed anything about the specific mechanisms of intelligence. Which left them at somewhat of a dead end.
Professor Trelawney distantly discussed the finer points of clairvoyant trances as the two Ravenclaw students sat in silence. They waited patiently at that dead end trusting that an idea would present itself.
“Harry, what’s the equivalent of paper or computers but magical?”
“What do you mean?” asked Harry.
“We have technologies that help us think more effectively. Paper and writing is a kind of external memory. Computers can take simple steps in thinking and run them over and over again really quickly outside our brains. Give me an idea like that but using transfiguration or charms or something.”
“That’s brilliant!” Harry yelled a little too loud as Professor Trelawney shot him a severe glance.
“Hmm, okay. The first thing that comes to mind,” he whispered excitedly, “is time turners. Do you know about them?”
“I’ve seen them mentioned in a few books. I wasn’t sure they were real though. They’re time machines? Actual working time machines like in science fiction?” Hermione asked.
“Yes, actual time machines. Except they can only travel 6 hours into the past and if you push the temporal paradox stuff too hard… erm, let’s just say we don’t want to push the temporal paradox stuff too hard.
“Let me go off on a slight tangent. I promise this will be relevant.
“One of the simplest designs for a super intelligent artificial intelligence is called a Speed Superintelligence. Here’s how you build one:
“If the power of computer processors and the resolution of medical scanners continues to improve – and there’s no reason they shouldn’t – we will eventually reach a point, perhaps in the not too distant future, where you can scan a whole human brain down to the level of individual neurons, model the chemical and electrical interactions between those neurons and run the whole thing as a working simulation of a human brain.
“Now that you’ve duplicated a brain in a virtual environment, you could ask it questions and it would think and answer just the same as the original brain. If it’s a perfect simulation it will even have the same personality and memories. Now I don’t expect the first super intelligent AIs to be designed anything like that, but in principle there’s nothing wrong with the design.”
“Alright, I’m with you” Hermione said hesitantly.
“Well the speed that you're able to run that brain simulation just depends on how powerful your computer is. So if you cover miles and miles of desert with extremely powerful computer processors, then you can run that simulation arbitrarily fast. With enough processing power you could simulate a team of the 10 most talented scientists on earth doing 1000 years of scientific research in 60 seconds. You would press enter on your keyboard and a minute later you would have technology from 1000 years in the future: renewable energy, cures for cancer, cures for aging, whatever you wanted.
“The beauty is you don’t have to know anything about how the brain generates intelligence. All you’re doing is compressing time,” said Harry.
“And compressing time is what a time turner does?”
“You couldn’t do it with a single time turner. There's this rather arbitrary rule of magic that a time turner can't turn back time more than six one-hour increments within any 24-hour period.
“So you would need a lot of time turners,” Harry continued, “and you would need to avoid interacting with past versions of yourself to prevent temporal paradoxes.”
“Imagine you have a series of lead-lined rooms underground, each one with a fresh time turner waiting for you inside. You would do 6 hours of work in the first room, walk to the second room, travel back 6 hours using the fresh time turner and continue working. 6 hours later you would continue to the next room, work, travel back 6 hours with a new time turner and so on. From your point of view you would be working on a single continuous project, probably stopping for sleep and occasional recreation days, in a long series of perhaps thousands of 6 hour stretches.
“But from the outside you would see thousands of versions of yourself working in neighbouring rooms simultaneously, each one at a different stage in the project. When 6 hours had elapsed, from the outside perspective, you would emerge with the finished project.
“When the time turner sends you back in time it effectively creates a perfect duplicate of your brain. In a sense, it's just the Speed Superintelligence design but the time turner is doing the work of the brain scanner and simulator.
“With 6000 time turners you could get 30 years of research – enough to make real progress on a hard scientific problem – done in a single week.
“Admittedly you would need to provide your time-looped researchers with things like sunlight, social connection and medical care. And you would need to find new researchers every week or two as each group would emerge having aged 30 years.”
Harry suspected these logistics and recruitment problems were more tractable than understanding exactly how the brain worked. Even better, this was exactly the kind of solution that other wizards wouldn’t have considered.
The moral question remained, whether it was fair to ask people to spend 30 years of their lives in lead rooms with the world frozen around them. If, hypothetically, only Harry and nobody else could use the time turned research facility, would he willingly incarcerate himself? 30 years to work on the AI safety problem whilst AI research remained safely frozen outside? It would be irresponsible not to.
So they had found one route to Godhood already... and all you needed was a time turner factory and an underground city.
A voice interrupted their scheming. “Mr Potter! Miss Granger! Have you been listening to a word I’ve been saying? Wands out and follow my instructions.”
Although slightly peeved at the interruption Harry was intrigued by the mention of wands. So far divination class had exclusively used meditation, tea leaves and magical Tarot cards – and all to exactly zero effect. His time turner plot could wait for now.
“As I explained, Mr Potter – I’ve hidden each of your exercise books within 5 minutes’ walk of this room. You must locate them using the clairvoyance spell and bring them back before the end of class.”
Professor Trelawney demonstrated the starting position and wand gestures of a spell, which Hermione immediately imitated. Seated cross-legged with her wand held delicately between 3 fingers, reminiscent of the hand gestures in a Bollywood dance, the divination teacher said the word Sensumductor and touched her wand to her forehead.
A short silence followed, during which absolutely nothing happened. Perhaps this wasn’t the day Harry would discover his burgeoning passion for the art of Divination.
Uncertain echoes of Sensumductor travelled around the room as the class copied, prodding themselves in the head with their wands.
“We all have a sixth magical sense.”
Harry counted in his head: sight, sound, hearing , touch, taste, sense of balance, proprioception, thermoception... There were far more than six before adding extra sensory magical perception to the list.
“Normally that sense lingers outside our awareness. Always there but never noticed because we are too distracted by our thinking minds.”
As one of apparently six major senses that are always there he wasn’t sure why it needed the label ‘extra’ sensory.
In the corner of his eye Harry could see Hermione practicing her wand movements; her expression serious. He realised that he wasn’t engaged in the good kind of scepticism – the kind motivated by the need to see the truth clearly. It was the bad kind motivated by the need to mock Professor Trelawney for being stupid.
Harry knew that dismantling the weakest version of somebody’s argument achieved nothing. Putting compassion, listening skills and being a good person aside, even from a purely self-serving point of view it was better to bolster the other person’s argument, making it the strongest version of itself. After all, you wanted to be proven wrong by good arguments whenever possible.
He resolved to try harder.
Watching Hermione and practicing the wand movements himself he cleared his mind and began to focus. Suppose there were things he could sense with magic? Certainly he had seen Professor Quirrel summon books from bookshelves without finding them on the shelf first – in fact without even being in the same room on some occasions. How had he done that?
“Sensumductor” Harry said resolutely as he placed the tip of his wand to his forehead.
A slight shiver shot through his body causing his skin to prickle. The sounds in the room now seeming slightly closer and louder somehow. In the past month Harry had seen Mrs McGonagall transform into a cat, talked to a sentient hat and travelled backwards in time. By comparison this was unimpressive. But there was an effect, however subtle.
Professor Trelawney had a ringing clarity to her voice now, as if she were standing just behind his right ear.
“The key is not to force anything. We don’t want to be grasping, we want to receive. Think of your exercise book and ask the universe to guide you to it. You might get an image, or a feeling or a smell. Be curious. Be patient. Be non-judgemental. And when you know where the book is, go there and bring it back to me.”
As the minutes passed in silence a few Gryffindors got up off their meditation cushions and wandered out of the room in various directions. More students left in dribs and drabs over the next twenty minutes. Most students had gone to the library, that being the place that came to mind when they had thought of a book. Dean Thomas had gone to the second floor girls’ bathroom and been shooed out, his earnest protestations about the universe guiding him there falling on deaf ears.
But by the end of the class not a single exercise book had been returned. Professor Trelawney’s divination classes had yet to produce a single premonition that was any better than random chance.
Hermione returned to the classroom where Professor Trelawney was dismissing the class. “Don’t worry, my students. Jupiter is in ascension which makes clairvoyance especially difficult on Thursdays. I’ll ask Minerva to rearrange the class schedules for next week.”
But something else caught Hermione's attention. Harry was still sitting on his cushion at the back of the class, eyes closed, back upright and his wand still pressed to his forehead. He had not left the classroom at all.
“Harry. We’re finished. Let’s go,” called Hermione.
The Boy Who Lived slowly opened his eyes, a mischievous smile spreading across his face.
There needs to be a reason why nobody else has thought of doing it. A reason why it's not in any of the library books.
There needs to be a reason why nobody else has thought of doing it. A reason why it's not in any of the library books.
These are not necessarily the same.
Is there another chapter?
Honestly, no plans at the moment. Writing these was a covid lockdown hobby. It's vaguely possible I'll finish it one day but I wouldn't hold your breath. Sorry.
Heh, it's better to have this than nothing at all! I'll keep hoping for it. ^-^
The obvious first step in this setting to initiating an intelligence explosion would be to find the Lost Diadem of Ravenclaw, even if all it does is accelerate processing speed and/or expand working memory capacity. Though it might be more complicated if it's part of Tom Riddle's enhanced horcrux network, especially if it's one of the items he buried deep underground/sank in the ocean/hovered invisibly in the atmosphere/etc. I'm interested to see where you take this.