johnwsaunders

The Most Human Human, Brian Christian

In Book reviews on May 30, 2011 at 8:04 am

Every year, computer programmers gather to battle against a common foe – humans. Their programmes chat via text on screen with judges, as do real humans (‘confederates’). Known as the ‘Turing test’ (after Alan Turing’s famous prediction that computers would be convincing conversationalists by the year 2000), it’s not widely publicized, and not all the human participants are that enthused (judges and confederates being there for a conference, perhaps). Not so for Brian Christian. He wanted to be a confederate, and travelled from his home in the US to Brighton for the sole purpose of fighting our side.

Judges have to determine which of the conversations they have are with humans, and which with computers. It can be a close call, but computers are yet to come out on top. For the computer with the most votes, a prize is awarded, ‘The most human computer’. Somewhat perversely, there’s also another prize, ‘The most human human’, the object of Christian’s quest.

Using the philosophical issues thrown up by the possibility of being out-humaned by machines, Christian asks what it is that we are, if replicable by machines? Well, fortunately, we’re not. That’s the point. There are so many ways in which the machines cannot compete with humans (coherence across a conversation and neologisms to name just two), that it seems a long, long way off before they’ll be on par (if it’s even possible).

But we don’t think of these as important, Christian argues. We are increasingly automating our own conversations (call-centres being the prime, but not only, example), or taking away decision making from people (micro-managing, bureaucratic procedural pedantry) and defining ourselves as thinkers, above and beyond all else.

Kant was one such proponent of the idea that thinking was humans’ defining feature (and in fact, the only guarantee of reality – cogito ergo sum). But as ‘computers’ (originally a job description, think the Enigma code) gradually became machines in common parlance, we were left with smaller and smaller territory to claim as ours.

Or were we? Christian argues that, in fact, we’ve just been on the wrong tack philosophically. Too ‘left-brain’ (dovetailing nicely with Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emmisary), too lazy and clichéd. In a remarkable passage, he explores the way the compression of data can be used as a measure of originality. It’s riveting stuff.

Is poetry, for example, the most human way of using language (again echoing McGilchrist)? Are we far less exceptional beings than perhaps we like to think? And does it make a difference? A beautifully written, and charmingly easy to read exploration of these questions. I think you know the answer.

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  1. […] Is poetry, for example, the most human way of using language (again echoing McGilchrist)? Are we far less exceptional beings than perhaps we like to think? And does it make a difference? via The Most Human Human by Brian Christian, reviewed in: Books, music, and the rest. […]

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