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A very similar question has been asked here.

Writing a Super Intelligent AI

I ask this question for multiple reasons. I was writing a sci-fi work and I decided it'd make sense that the characters have above human intelligence because that'd be useful and possibly rather standard, some of them being AIs and whatever. I was also not satisfied with the answers there because there were some problems it did not address.

A fellow writer told me that it's extremely hard to believably present and that's why he excludes above-human intelligence from his work, but I'm hoping I can get through with this. This will be for an AI with above-human intelligence who is also a POV character. There is no 'superintelligence' around as of 2023 so that makes it a bit harder.

What would you expect to see from their 'POV chapters' different to those of average intelligence? What tropes/traps should I avoid that may be very easy to fall into, rather than the more obvious ones? Do we have any guesses on how they'd behave? Are there any constraints/weaknesses I may not have noticed, e.g. a superintelligent caveman still being limited by his environment and body? Doesn't have to be tied to these sub-questions, tell me as much as you want.

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Take your time.

In the real world, highly intelligent people are often fast and creative.

They see things in problems others do not, because they look at problems in many different ways; inside out, upside down, etc. They have an intuition for how math will work out, not like a fast computer, but they can see the approach that would work.

Not only that, but super-intelligent people can explain themselves in terms the normals can understand, they can justify what they did; step by step, even though mentally they traveled those eight steps to the proper solution in less than a second.

The way you write this is to use one of your superpowers as an author: You can compress time. You can think for a week about a clever way to solve a problem, and have your super intelligent character come up with that solution in a minute. Or a second. And take action that surprises everybody, and then spend two pages explaining how it knew that action would work.

You can get a clue (literally!) from watching the various incarnations of Sherlock Holmes and similar super detectives.

There is a literary reason Sherlock always has a Watson; because what Sherlock concludes in a moment, Sherlock then explains to Watson, or the police, in a minute or two of screen time.

But in the writer's room, there is an hours long discussion of what clue we can give Sherlock that will be the key to the mystery, and what is the situation in which Sherlock finds this clue, and what was his chain of reasoning? That is the essence of the episode; and those hours of hashing it out may translate into half a page of the screenplay, executed in 30 seconds.

Super intelligent characters can be great fun for readers; Sherlock and the super-detective genre inspired by Sherlock (House, Columbo, The Mentalist, Psych, Monk, currently running Will Trent, and many others).

But plan on spending ten times longer writing those characters, the insights they have in seconds may take you hours or days to research and write.

And be sure to give your super character somebody to talk to; a sidekick, a partner, a captain or boss, somebody to whom they can explain their reasoning, because ultimately the reasoning is what sells the super intelligence, otherwise it just looks like a Deus Ex Machina.

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  • Superintelligence probably won't be a rare thing in this setting, so there's that. Couldn't I explain it via the POV of the character, their internal thoughts, rather than just dialogue?
    – Pullo
    Aug 19, 2023 at 14:15
  • @Pullo Sure, but their internal thoughts take just as long for you to formulate. You have to take your time to think through thoughts and consistently produce "surprising" leaps of thought that would be typical in a super-intelligent person. You have to impress the reader; they won't be impressed by your improvised thinking, because you are not super-intelligent. Your character has to think differently. Make logical leaps that are correct but surprising. This still takes planning and slogging and examination of your logic. And that takes time.
    – Amadeus
    Aug 19, 2023 at 20:13
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How would you write a super strong character? You would have them lift things nobody else would lift. Or throw things faster than anyone else can. Thinking is harder to depict, but that will be your task.

What you you don't want to do is explain how it works. Say I set a child the task of 4+4+4+4+4 - they would dutifully work away at running totals, 4+4 is 8, and another 4 makes 12 ... but an older child would count them, say "5 4s is 20" and be done. They might not even be able to explain how they had done it. In the same way, you can depict your superintelligent character taking on a task that people expect to take a week, and doing it in less than a day. Others will be able to confirm it was done correctly, and isn't just spectacularly lucky guessing. Then as the book goes on everyone (including the reader) can accept that this character is superintelligent, and you can have them do seemingly impossible tasks by just stating that they can.

As for how a person would behave if they were that much smarter than everyone else around them, that's up to you. You can make them frustrated and bitter if you want, looking down on all the "morons" and "idiots" around them. Or you can make them grateful and excited, a kid playing with a toy, discovering things, inventing things, helping others, having a great time. That's what will make this story your story.

To avoid tropes and traps, I'd say avoid details. If you give me 5 pages of exposition to prove this character is different, I can get irritated by what I see as mistakes or oversteps in that exposition. The less of that the better.

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the Tropes

TV Tropes claims Super Intelligence breaks down into 4 main tropes (their names, my summary):

  • Super learning and eidetic memory are the ability to 'master' a new subject quickly.
  • Advanced reasoning is the ability to diagnose problems and come up with novel solutions, presumably from their encyclopedic knowledge of science, history, geography, trivia....
  • Exceptional Perception is the ability to perceive details and extrapolate their significance within the context.
  • Manipulator Extraordinaire is the ability to predict other people's behavior, presumably through theory of mind and probability analysis.

They also acknowledge that just being a general science nerd seems to be a (mostly useless?) part of the trope, and they also have a page for Intelligence Tropes which might need to be avoided. They are not a writer's resource, just a list of pop culture. It's not going to help you make characters.

Worldbuild

Assuming your super-intelligent AI are created for a purpose (not born haphazardly), I can think of corporate entities that might 'invest' in their creation. You'll need to figure out how they became emancipated, if they were. They may have contracts like indentured servants, with a retirement plan as they age out of the workforce. They way things look now that might be a cycle of 5-10 years, like serving in the military or buying a desktop.

Consider how nations today invest in education initiatives that will pay off decades later, or building infrastructure as a longterm investment in future generations. If AI is necessary for a nation to stay economically competitive they will figure out a way to make it happen. It's not a huge leap from labor/immigration data to estimating there will be x-number of super-intelligent AI needed to support blah-blah industry.

Your characters have a past that informs who they are, and what kind of choices they've made. Individuals will be either products of society's norms or at odds with it.

Specialized Intelligence, deficits elsewhere

It's a good idea to build-in limitations to superpowers, and also costs – especially since these are some of your POV characters. Design their blindspots and special needs. Do they have a body? Do they need to hire someone to carry them around?

All characters need a relationship with the in-world economy. I suggested above that an AI might 'retire' from their purpose-career after being replaced by newer models (relatable). They might object to their purpose job, or miss it, or maybe they were only mediocre at it (relatable). Anchor them in the 'real' world by showing us how they are supporting their energy bills and upkeep (relatable).

Show, don't tell

You'll need to establish how their intelligence works before you can use it to solve story conflicts. That's why giving them a job is a good idea, we can see their 'normal' everyday use of the superpower, and get an idea of their moral compass – who benefits from their intelligence?

These moral parameters are probably more important to the reader than their lore, or creating a gee-whiz moment with technobabble. A POV character is a protagonist. They see the world in a certain way, and whether they save the cat or kick the dog is how stories work (AI or not).

Show how they apply their intelligence, don't just tell us how smart they are with extra words or by thinking smug thoughts (Sherlock).

Xanatos Gambit

The endgame of being the smartest person in the room, is having considered all the possibilities and covered all the bases. TV Tropes calls this the Xanatos Gambit, where a villain has out-maneuvered every other player by reaping some benefit no matter the outcome. That works best when it turns out the villain (Xanatos) was instigating the conflict all along, and it's a final reveal.

Scaling that idea down, the super-intelligent AI will recognize the chaos of putting a real plan into motion, and they will have contingency plan b, and then contingency plan c. Planning for possible outcomes that no one else sees is going to become expensive, and inefficient. It's also a story bore because there are no stakes (much like broken time travel, the hero can always have retro-fixed any problem in the past). This is another superpower that needs limits unless they are the villain.

A 'good' mastermind might try the reverse, to engineer a path where everyone comes out ahead, everyone benefits, no matter the outcome – or they may create the illusion of a big win for their employer meanwhile re-routing resources and protecting the victims in some way.

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  • For why they benefit from their intelligence, it's a sci-fi universe and I wanted an interesting twist on characters. Superintelligence, especially self-improving, would be useful wouldn't it?
    – Pullo
    Aug 20, 2023 at 17:36
  • @Pullo I don't understand your comment. Your question asked how to write characters. We don't critique your ideas here.
    – wetcircuit
    Aug 20, 2023 at 19:01
  • Well much of your answer revolved around the world itself and you questioned what they'd do with such intelligence. The reason I planned to integrate it in writing would be because it'd be really useful for the characters in their daily activities rather than just a specific job.
    – Pullo
    Aug 20, 2023 at 19:09
  • @Pullo I never questioned what they'd do with such intelligence. Sounds like you don't actually have a story or characters, you just want other people to come up with story ideas for you. Good luck with your writing.
    – wetcircuit
    Aug 21, 2023 at 13:50
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You are overthinking this.

You cannot write the POV of someone who is significantly more intelligent than you are, because you do not know how it would feel to be that person and because you do not know how such a person thinks.

But most of your readers won't know either, so if you tell them that your character is highly intelligent they will take your word for it. That's how this is commonly done: Simply state that your character is superintelligent. Just like you state they are blonde or male or the best sword fighter in history.


I'm working with highly intelligent people as a psychotherapist. Many of them are bad at maths! And once the problems you work on become rather advanced, it is impossible to explain them to a layperson. No matter how intelligent you are, you cannot simplify everything enough to make it comprehensible to a person of average intelligence.

The one thing many highly intelligent people have in common is that they are bored by less intelligent people. Imagine everyone around you was eight years old. Your boss, your co-workers, your friends, your spouse, the politicians – everyone! That's how it feels to be highly intelligent. There is no one who understands you! No one you can talk to on your level. Except other highly intelligent people. That is why quite a few of them are lonely and depressed. And why many of them keep to their highly intelligent peers.

And that is why you rarely meet them in real life. They live in university labs or high tech companies and they don't interact with you, or only once. And you often will not be able to tell that they are highly intelligent, because they have learned not to let it show. Many of them have been mobbed and ridiculed in their childhood or youth for their strange interests or their erudite speech.

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Don't Make Smart The Focus of Your Writing

But, you say, that's the whole point! Well, write what you know. No one is going to be impressed by the super-smart things that super-smart people do in your story. They are going to assume brilliance, and the most you can hope for is to impress them with how clever your character's machinations are.

But super-smart people are still going to be people. The hard thing will be to keep focused on making these demigods relatable to mere mortals like your reader. If they can manipulate the people around them, they might be desperately lonely. If they've always been the most intelligent person in the room, then they may have imposter syndrome, or get shown up by other really smart folks and be humiliated. They may have a crush on a person who is completely inappropriate, or find themselves lacking emotional intelligence. Hubris is a great thing to play with here, as the character does things that have unintended consequences because they start assuming they can't make mistakes.

But when you do show them being really smart, don't make it something that people can know more about or that they are going to fact-check. They know a certain approach with someone will work, even if not apparent to others. The answer involves something world-specific that is unverifiable, like reconfiguring the warp drive on the fly, or guessing the name of the demon that must be stopped by speaking it's name. People understand super powers, and if the super-smarts can be treated like a superpower, the smarty-pants will be more relatable.

If the smarty-pants is not the MC, silence can go along way towards creating the appearance of cleverness. Others talk, and they only interrupt when someone is really going to mess something up. The character doesn't tell you they are smart, but others praise the character or talk of being baffled at how they know or can do things (this was particularly popular with Agatha Christie).

But you can also be tongue-and-cheek with them. They are busily figuring out how to make the impossible lock open, but the strong guy in the group breaks down the door. They have an elaborate plan to win their love, but their love is playing them for a fool and they can't see it despite others warning them.

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