The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive
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The Most Human Human is a provocative, exuberant, and profound exploration of the ways in which computers are reshaping our ideas of what it means to be human. Its starting point is the annual Turing Test, which pits artificial intelligence programs against people to determine if computers can “think.”
Named for computer pioneer Alan Turing, the Turing Test convenes a panel of judges who pose questions—ranging anywhere from celebrity gossip to moral conundrums—to hidden contestants in an attempt to discern which is human and which is a computer. The machine that most often fools the panel wins the Most Human Computer Award. But there is also a prize, bizarre and intriguing, for the Most Human Human.
In 2008, the top AI program came short of passing the Turing Test by just one astonishing vote. In 2009, Brian Christian was chosen to participate, and he set out to make sure Homo sapiens would prevail.
The author’s quest to be deemed more human than a computer opens a window onto our own nature. Interweaving modern phenomena like customer service “chatbots” and men using programmed dialogue to pick up women in bars with insights from fields as diverse as chess, psychiatry, and the law, Brian Christian examines the philosophical, biological, and moral issues raised by the Turing Test.
One central definition of human has been “a being that could reason.” If computers can reason, what does that mean for the special place we reserve for humanity?
made of that identity. It is profoundly odd, then—especially so in a country with a reputation for “individualism”—to contemplate how often we do just that. The British television series The Office consists of fourteen episodes, all written and directed by the two series creators, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. The show was so successful that it was spun off into an American version: 130 episodes and counting, each written by a different person from the last and each directed by a different
and more people in our society seem to be in need of psychiatric counseling, and when time sharing of computers is widespread, I can imagine the development of a network of computer psychotherapeutic terminals, something like arrays of large telephone booths, in which, for a few dollars a session, we would be able to talk with an attentive, tested, and largely non-directive psychotherapist.” Incredibly, it wouldn’t be long into the twenty-first century before this prediction—again, despite all
bona fide Homo sapiens but also lives fewer than eleven time zones away, may have “Ivana,” in a weird way, to thank. The Illegitimacy of the Figurative When Claude Shannon met Betty at Bell Labs in the 1940s, she was indeed a computer. If this sounds odd to us in any way, it’s worth knowing that nothing at all seemed odd about it to them. Nor to their co-workers: to their Bell Labs colleagues their romance was a perfectly normal one, typical even. Engineers and computers wooed all the
living for all, and that has released humans from a number of unpleasant tasks. The corollary to the “advance” of technology seems to be that familiar human “retreat,” for better and for worse. We call a present-day technophobe a “Luddite,” which comes from a group of British workers who from 1811 to 1812 protested the mechanization of the textile industry by sabotaging mechanical looms:4 this debate has been going on—in words and deeds—for centuries. But software, and particularly AI, changes
as in My Dinner with Andre, “invisible.” Shawn and Gregory’s restaurant seems to be one of those restaurants that’s “nice” to the point of invisibility, as if any “holds” on their attention would be a distraction, as if (and this was Schopenhauer’s view) happiness consisted merely in the eradication of all possible irritants and displeasures, as if the goal were to make the diners consent that they’d enjoyed themselves primarily through the impossibility of any particular criticism. The