“Today’s person spends way more time in front of screens. In fluorescent-lit rooms, in cubicles, being on one end or the other of an electronic data transfer. And what is it to be human and alive and exercise your humanity in that kind of exchange?” David Foster Wallace
What does it meant to “act human”? asks Brian Christian. In a mixture of computer science, philosophy, and even poetry Brian Christian’s The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive is a profound exploration of the ways in which computers are reshaping our ideas of what it means to be human. Did you know that the term “computers” was originally a job description for people who could perform calculations for a living? Not until the 20th century did the word begin to refer to a device.
Far from being a mere rhetorical exercise, reading this book asks us serious questions about how we live our life, questions literary writers, such as David Foster Wallace, have asked, and that spiritual pioneers such as Alan Watts anticipated. Christian points out that throughout history we have largely defined ourselves as separate and distinct from other species and as a “soul” through our rational ability. Aristotle, for instance, divided plants (nutritive soul), from animals (sensitive soul), from humans (rational soul), concluding (conveniently enough for a philosopher):
Excellence and perfection in the human life is to spend it in the act of abstract contemplation…”
He connects Aristotle’s foundation to Descartes position of radical doubt. Descartes realizes he is human essentially because he thinks, or has the ability to have abstract thought. It even connects to theology: rational contemplation is a part of the “good guy” team, the team not connected to the body.
For the first time in history, we’re interacting with computers so sophisticated that we think they’re human beings. This is a remarkable feat of human ingenuity, but what does it say about our humanity? Are we really no better at being human than the machines we’ve created? Perhaps some of Christian’s inspiration came from his opening vignette:
Claude Shannon, artificial intelligence pioneer and founder of information theory, met his wife, Mary Elizabeth, at work. This was Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, the early 1940s. He was an engineer, working on wartime cryptography and wartime transmission. She was a computer.”
The real inspiration was when Christian was invited to participate in the (in)famous Turing test in which you have to prove yourself to be human–apparently easier said than done. Since the test evaluates just how human you are, “being human (and being oneself) is about more than simply showing up.” By mimicking our conversation and behavior, computers have recently come within a single vote of passing the Turing test, the widely accepted threshold at which a machine can be said to be thinking or intelligent. Christian takes recent advances in artificial intelligence as the opportunity to rethink what it means to be human, and what it means to be intelligent, in the 21st century.
Competing head-to-head with the world’s leading A.I. programs at the annual Turing test competition, Christian uses their astonishing achievements as well as their equally fascinating failings to reveal our most human abilities: to learn, to communicate, to intuit and to understand. And in an age when computers may be steering us away from these activities, he shows us how to become the most human humans that we can be.
I think the odd fetishization of analytical thinking, and the concomitant denigration of the animal and embodied aspect of life is something we’d do well to leave behind. Perhaps we are, finally, in the beginnings of an age of AI, starting to be able to center ourselves again, after generations of living ‘slightly to one side.'”
In an odd curiosity kind of way, the following segment on 17th century automatons ask the very question explored in Brian Christian’s book. When something begins to take on human characteristics, where does the line begin and end as to what makes something human.
And here’s an hour long lecture from Brian Christian on his main ideas explored in the book.