Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Most Human Human by Brian Christian

A competition called the Turing test takes place each year. Judges at computer terminals interact with unseen correspondents. Each judge has two correspondents, one a human being and one a computer program, and the judge tries to tell which is which after a five minute online conversation with each. The program that receives the most votes and highest judge confidence score is named the Most Human Computer. This title is highly coveted by programmers. A side result of the voting, however, is that the human who receives the most votes and highest judge confidence score is named the Most Human Human.

It is from this side of the Turing test that author Brian Christian writes his book The Most Human Human. He sets out to participate in the test as a correspondent and to win the Most Human Human title. Along the way, he philosophizes about what it means to be human and how our interaction with computers is affecting that. He notes, “We once thought humans were unique for having a language with syntactical rules, but this isn’t so; we once thought humans were unique for using tools, but this isn’t so; we once thought humans were unique for being able to do mathematics, and now we can barely imagine being able to do what our calculators can.”

The author makes the point that cell phones, texting, and programs that finish our words for us are making us less creative. It is easier to use the word the phone suggests than to fight the phone and type the word we meant to use. He writes, “I was detachedly roaming the Internet, but there was nothing interesting happening in the news, nothing interesting happening on Facebook…I grew despondent, depressed – the world used to seem so interesting…But all of a sudden it dawned on me, as if the thought had just occurred to me, that much of what is interesting and amazing about this world did not happen in the past twenty-four hours. How had this fact slipped away from me? …. Somehow I think the Internet is making this very critical point lost on an entire demographic.”

Christian is an interesting guy. He has a dual bachelor’s degree in computer science and philosophy and a master of fine arts in poetry. He understands the scientific angle of the Turing test but also the human side of what it means for a human to challenge a computer. There is a wonderful scene during the Turing test when he spies on a fellow human correspondent’s chat with a judge and realizes they are chatting in shorthand about Canadian hockey teams, virtually assuring that the judge knows he is talking to a human. This causes Christian a moment of panic and despair when he fears that he will lose the Most Human Human title.

Christian’s views on how we interact with the world are refreshing. He says, “I think the reason novels are regarded to have so much more ‘information’ than films is that they outsource the scenic design and cinematography to the reader. … This, for me, is a powerful argument for the value and potency of literature specifically.” I felt somewhat lost toward the end of the book when it got a bit scientific, but the science was not too overwhelming, and I wouldn’t let that put you off as a potential reader. I enjoyed this book tremendously, and it really made me think.

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