October: #bookofthemonth
Oct062019

October: #bookofthemonth

The Most Human Human by Brian Christian


In 1950, legendary mathematician Alan Turing predicted that, by the year 2000, there would exist computer programs that could convincingly imitate humans. More specifically, that it would be possible to program computers to “make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70% chance of making the right identification [human or computer] after five minutes of questioning.” Though the prediction didn’t come to pass, his statement determined the parameters of the annual Loebner Prize competition, where a human panel of judges chat with computer programs and humans (via computers) and decide which is which. Each year, the most convincing chatbot is named the “Most Human Computer” and the most convincing human competitor is named the “Most Human Human”.

In 2009, author Brian Christian enrolled as a “confederate”, the name given to human competitors for the Loebner Prize, and set out to document his attempt to win the Most Human Human award. An organizer of the competition advised Christian simply to be himself. This direction was not useful to Christian. If we study for our driver’s test and for our university entrance exams, why not study how to be a human? And so began Christian’s test preparation. He interviewed linguists, psychologists, attorneys, dating coaches, biologists and computer scientists, and asked them all the same question: what is the hallmark feature of human communication?

Christian also explores the ways great thinkers defined what it meant to be human. This is where his degrees in philosophy, poetry, and computer science synthesize to provide nuanced, but accessible arguments. He takes the reader on a journey from Aristotle to Heidegger, before arriving at contemporary neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran, who explains that while other animals have evolved to become more specialized over time, humans have evolved to evade specialization. Though social psychologist Daniel Gilbert famously said that every psychologist must, at some point in their career, complete the sentence: “The human being is the only animal that…”, Christian argues that we should instead focus on comparing ourselves to computers. “The inhuman has not only given us an appetite for the human: it’s teaching us what it is.”

Christian points out that a few decades ago, “computer” was a job title for a person who computed calculations. Today, however, if we refer to a maths-genius as a “computer”, we are being metaphorical, even though digital computers were modeled on human maths-geniuses. We are now in the strange position of imitating our old imitators, suggesting in some ways that humans are losing our humanness. We’ve substituted a face-to-face conversation with a phone call. We’ve substituted a phone call with a text. We’ve substituted a text with an auto-completed emoji. Perhaps then, when a computer finally passes the Turing test, it won’t be because they’ve become more intelligent, but rather because we’ve met them in the middle.

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