Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Book Review: The Most Human Human

The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive by Brian Christian
Doubleday, 2011
Hardcover, 320 pages

"Talking with computers" may bring to mind the day-to-day interactions that take place as we use our computers, smartphones, and other devices, in some cases interacting with other people via mediated technologies, in other cases interfacing with a computer directly (think of voice-activated menus on 1-800 numbers). The above certainly applies in this book by Seattle-based writer Brian Christian, but it specifically refers to the Turing Test, in which "a panel of judges ... pose questions ... to hidden contestants in an attempt to discern which is human and which is a computer." Computer programmers work for years to win the "most human computer" award -- in many cases retiring their AI progeny as the same voice-activated phone menus -- but the author prepared in the months leading up to his participation in the test in 2009 to become the "most human human." This book is the result of the exploration, a meandering mix of technology, philosophy, language, gaming, and a smattering of other topics, ranging from the artificial to the human.

This is a fairly brisk book whisking the reader along on a string of ideas that explores the things that (supposedly) make us human. How those things are programmed or learned by artificial intelligence is an aspect of this, and one of the many interesting points revolving around the relationship between man and machine is the observation that people act like computers before they are replaced by them. To use the same example as the first sentence of this review, over time telephone operators minimized their human responses to a scripted routine, basically working with binary if/and framework. After this became standard, it was not hard for AI to replace the operators, once the computers could respond to voices. This sort of replacement is not all-pervasive, but it illustrates how a simple "computers mimicking humans" point of view does not tell the whole story; it is a two-way interaction where AI also influences how we behave, and not merely as a segue to their co-option of jobs.

Like life, the point of Christian's book is the journey, not the end (we all know how at least one of those turns out). His chapter on computer and human compression -- the former more understood and appreciated than the latter -- that leads up the book's conclusion is one of the highlights of a book with many, but what follows is not a euphoric "oh, that's what makes us human!" moment. Christian doesn't have the answers, but he gives us plenty to consider and reconsider about ourselves and how we interact with the people around us, more than the computers that have infiltrated just about every aspect of our lives.