In the interest of full-disclosure, I went to high school with Brian. We’ve kept in touch and I was so excited when I read his book announcement in Publisher’s Weekly. I pre-ordered the book as soon as I could, and I read it from cover to cover as soon as it arrived. However, I tend not to read a lot of adult NF (other than professional books), so I knew I would be pretty hard on the book- I am tough to impress in the adult NF sector).
The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive 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?
The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive is a stimulating, fascinating book that is perfect for both the most discerning technophile and the neophyte reader who seeks to start thinking about humanity, language, biology, history, and technology. It’s the rare nonfiction book that can capture the mind of almost any reader. Nothing is “over your head” and the tone is conversational while remaining intellectual. (The entire book actually made me think I was reading a TEDxtalk. It’s that kind of conversational tone). Anyone who knows me know that I read very fast. However, I found myself reading this slowly, savoring the ideas. I frequently stopped to think about some of the points Brian brings up, saying, “Wow, I never thought of it like that!”
As a teacher, I really appreciated The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive. Brian does a fantastic job of bringing together many disciplines- math, science, computers, linguistics, sociology, human behavior, and much more. Brian’s background in science writing and philosophy plus his MFA in Poetry are exactly the type of well-rounded academic life I am promoting to my students. To be a successful citizen of the 21st century, you can’t just be an engineer, or a salesperson, or a teacher. You must make your own way and your own ideas. We are preparing students today for careers that don’t even exist yet! Being well-rounded academically is so very, very important. And being able to bring all those ideas together is imperative.
And as a teacher, I appreciate the thought-provoking theme of what makes us human. Our students are moving into an increasingly digital world- what will that mean for humanity? Where do we draw the line? When do computers become “human”? As Brian points out, most human inventions came to be when we had a job that needed to be done. Computers, however, were invented and then we created jobs for them. They’ve always been different, and they are shaping the world we live in today and the world that will exist in the future.
This is a book I know I will find myself going back to over and over, rereading chapters here and there. I look forward to discussing it with my students in the fall (The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive is our One Book, One Class for the incoming freshman class). A few of my current freshman have read it and really enjoyed it. And Brian will be coming to speak to our freshman after spring break. I am really looking forward to that!
Highly recommended for high school readers and adults.