1629 words (6 minute read)


The building was an arrow shot into the center of downtown Atlanta, its façade a black, one-way mirror that implored outsiders to examine themselves carefully before entering. I followed the revolving doors into a pristine, climate-controlled foyer of sparkling white marble. I continued to a bank of elevators with vivid panels displaying rotating maps and perfect images of lakes, mountains, solar eclipses, and other mesmerizing scenes that could mean anything. Three well-dressed employees, a slender man of African descent, a petite Asian woman, and a tall Scandinavian woman, stood beneath the panels smiling and greeting entrants. Three men in suits nodded as they took the elevators on the left. An older man stepped out of the middle elevator and waved politely to the greeters as he headed toward the doors behind me.

The blonde woman smiled at me first, asking if I was here for the Mediascape interviews. I nodded as she gestured to the elevator to her right. She seemed to belong to a snowy fairyland rather than a corporate building. Her skin sparkled--literally. I realized it was likely a CRISPR modification. More people seemed to be choosing that for their children these days. It was subtle, and not something I could imagine choosing for myself, but the look definitely worked for her.

“Twenty-third floor,” she said.

At first, I thought she was speaking to me but then the elevator doors changed from red to blue as I entered and an electronic voice repeated the destination in a British accent.

A moment later, I exited and immediately encountered a tan, pudgy man wearing a black suit over a pink paisley shirt. He shook my hand and introduced himself as Jon. I could not place his accent. Upper-class Boston? Maine? Something in New England. It was not particularly distinguished, neither was it the kind of thick accent with the absurdly hard As and complete disregard for Rs.

“I’m going to take you into this room here on our left, Che. Then I’m going to ask you a couple questions to gauge your aptitudes. Standard stuff. Afterward, I will be happy to answer any questions you might have about the position. Would you like anything to drink before we begin?”

I shook my head and entered the door that he indicated with his outstretched hand. We stood in front of a long glass table within one of a dozen meeting rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out to the hallway.

I took a deep breath as we each sat down into large angular chairs. They were surprisingly comfortable. I undid the button of my blazer, which I realized was too tight when I sat down. He did the same before he took his seat, much more gracefully than I had done.

“I apologize if these questions sound odd. With the universities tossing people PhDs like confetti these days, we have to confirm certain skillsets before proceeding, you understand. Professor Lovelace provided a glowing recommendation letter so I’m sure this will not be too challenging for you. Nevertheless, it’s procedure.” He smiled reassuringly, somewhat antiseptically.

My heart beat rapidly. I am sure it was audible.

“I will tell you that not every question has a correct answer. In many cases, we are interested in your thought process more than your final response. So please take us through your thinking as you consider these problems. We give everyone five questions. They are not necessarily the same, but they are comparable. The whole process generally takes half an hour. If you prefer to skip a question, please say so and we will return to it if time allows. I can clarify if needed but I cannot give you any hints or elaborations.”

I noticed a camera pointed at me from the top corner of the room. Jon seemed to notice me noticing it. He looked over his shoulder. “This is being recorded,” he explained. “No one but the executives will view this session. You consented to it in your application. Is it still all right, Che?”

“Yes,” I nodded, wondering if the video captured my heart palpitations.

He cleared his throat and began. “There are five pirates. They have a treasure of 100 gold coins. As they consider how to distribute the bounty, they decide that each pirate will propose a division. If it suits at least half of the group, they will follow the proposal. If it does not, that pirate will walk the plank and the remaining pirates will start again. They will make proposals in order of seniority, beginning with the oldest pirate and ending, if need be, with the youngest. Knowing that each pirate wants as much gold as possible and that each is perfectly logical and intelligent, what is the proposal of the first pirate? Take all the time you need.”

I took another deep breath and tried unsuccessfully not to look into the camera above his head. I slid the back of my right hand across my forehead to wipe away the accumulating sweat.

“Five pirates,” I repeated. “One hundred gold coins.”

He nodded, confirming the numbers. “Please continue to vocalize your thoughts.”

“Well, my first reaction would be to offer an equal division—twenty coins each—in hopes of making everyone happy. But then it seems the first pirate will simply be tossed overboard so that everyone will then have twenty-five coins each.”

Jon did not react.

I wondered how many people received this specific question. How many nervous neurocartographers fresh out of school have pondered these pirates over the years. In other situations, was the question different or did Jon simply replace pirates with thieves, bandits, and other colloquial terms for criminals?

“Hmm, can we skip this one for now?” I asked.

“We can.”

“Okay, I think I’d like to skip it,” I said. “I’d like to—actually no, ninety-eight. The first pirate would keep ninety-eight coins.”

I tried to maintain a serious exterior. Inside, I was giddy, ecstatic even. I had read about this exact question in the archive Professor Lovelace gave me. The test mimicked that of an obscure company from the early twenty-first century called Google. It hired the smartest people in the world at the time. Engineers, Computer Scientists, Psychologists, Mathematicians... The employers famously asked these seemingly random and absurd questions to applicants to see how they performed under pressure and whether they could extrapolate and integrate the scenarios quickly and efficiently. I cannot imagine the poor man or woman who first received this question with no clue it was coming. After a few years, however, people leaked the questions and compiled lists of them, as well as the answers. Google eventually stopped asking these questions and its hiring practices disappeared from common knowledge in the industry by the twenty-second century. The archive, however, remained. Thanks to Professor Lovelace and virtually limitless storage capacities, I could answer this question easily.

“Could you elaborate, please, Che?”

“It just occurred to me that this is an optimization problem that can be solved logarithmically, working back from zero,” I said, feigning ignorance. I hoped the executives viewing the video would believe that I had never come across this problem and that I was inventing the formula as I spoke. If so, I might just get this job.

“If the pirates keep rejecting the offers, the last pirate will take everything,” I continued. “So it’s in his or her interest to reject every proposal. If all the pirates were rational and intelligent as you said, then they would also know this to be the case. They would know that the last pirate is effectively a lost cause. But if two remained, then the second-last pirate would keep everything because only half of the pirates must consent to the division.”

I noticed for the first time that a tablet and a stylus were sitting on the table. A notebook application appeared preloaded on the screen. Jon observed my gaze and gestured for me to take the materials.

“In the zero scenario—the one with only one pirate left—all the treasure goes to that final pirate,” I said as I began to sketch a simple matrix on the pad. “In the first scenario—when two pirates remain—all the coins go to the second-last pirate who holds fifty percent of the votes. If every pirate realizes this situation, then the scenario with three remaining pirates involves pirate three keeping ninety-nine coins and offering the last pirate one coin. One coin is better than nothing. All the pirates know this. The two pirates will outvote the pirate in the middle. This situation can go on indefinitely…well until the coins run out, which would be at the two-hundredth scenario.”

Jon nodded looking at the pad as I showed him my sketch.

“The most senior pirate must offer the third pirate and the last pirate one coin each. They will know that if they do not accept this proposal they will face death and empty pockets respectively. So the top pirate keeps ninety-eight coins and walks away, winning the odd pirates’ votes.”

I could not help but smile. I exhaled and tried to appear satisfied with my solution and not elated that I had stolen the answer sheet before the test.

“I’m glad you chose not to skip the question,” Jon said. “You’re a natural.”

I allowed myself a small nod. I wondered what my observers would think of my performance if they knew the truth. There was no way I could have solved this question on the spot.

“How about something a little more challenging?” Jon asked.