Author Visit from Brian Christian

Last Tuesday, my students were thrilled that Brian Christian, author of The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive and 2002 alum, came by for an author visit. Brian is an old friend and I am so grateful that he was willing to give up a day and head back to his old stomping grounds to talk about his book and being an author.

Brian speaking to my seniors

Brian spoke to the freshman for about 40 minutes, and they were rapt with attention.  They later mentioned that he never spoke above conversational volume, yet no one ever had to strain to hear him.  He never raised his voice and no one spoke over him.  I was proud of my kids, but even prouder of Brian.  He was a fantastic speaker and I looked around the room to see my students constantly mouthing, “Wow!” as he shared anecdotes about his time studying for the Turing test.

After speaking about his book, Brian took questions from the students.  They had fantastic questions and both he and I were very impressed.  A nice number of them had picked up the book on their own and read it and they asked some great, intelligent questions.  I think some of them would have loved to talk to Brian all day!  But alas, the bell rang for lunch.  Yet a lot of students stuck around- a few brought their copy of his book up to be autographed and to continue their conversations.  Suddenly, a few of my freshman girls came rushing out the open computer lab clutching printouts of Brian’s author photo.  They shyly thrust it towards him and asked for an autograph.  I couldn’t help but laugh. “I guess that’s not something you get at every reading, huh?” I asked him.  He laughed and signed the photos.  The perils of teenage girl fans, eh?

After lunch, Brian kindly stuck around for an informal 25-minute chat with my seniors.  He talked a lot about the importance of following your passion and majoring in what you love and enjoy, trusting that a job will be there when you are done. (He double-majored in computer science and philosophy, following that up with an MFA in poetry!)  I think that is such an important idea for kids to hear and I was so glad he took the time to share his experience.  Again, he took questions from the students.  One student raised his hand, asking if Brian was familiar with Megaman.  Brian laughed, and said of course.  The student then went on to explain that he is seriously interested in sentient robots and asked a great question pertaining to AI.  After the presentation, that same student walked up to Brian and asked to shake his hand. “Thank you so much for taking my question seriously.  This is something I genuinely want to study and most people tend to laugh me off. So I just wanted to express my gratitude to you.”  How awesome is that?

Having Brian come back to visit was fantastic.  He is a real-world example of what my colleagues and I work so hard to express to our students- life isn’t a box.  You are never “just” an engineer or “just” a sales manager.  Every occupation involves many different disciplines.  It’s why we work so hard to combine Biology, Software Apps, English, and History.  No man is an island, and no subject is either.  Brian is a poet, a science writer, a philosopher, a teacher, a student, an author, and a computer scientist.  We all need to follow our passions and create something in our lives that we are proud of.

Local newspaper article about Brian’s visit

Gallery of Photos

The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive by Brian Christian

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).

Publisher’s Summary: 

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.

*purchased copy

Please Watch The Daily Show Tonight!!!

Tonight, my friend Brian will be Jon Stewart’s guest on The Daily Show!  He will be talking about his new book The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive.  (My review coming soon 🙂 )

Adult Book News!

I rarely post about the adult book world here because I’m always deeply entrenched in middle grade and YA books.  However, I can’t pass up the opportunity to brag about a high school classmate’s book deal!  (I went to a tiny, magnet-like high school for science and technology, so this is very exciting for a reader/writer like me).

Janet Silver’s rookie season as a literary agent with Zachary Shuster Harmsworth continues, as the former editor and publisher has sold a book to Doubleday about artificial intelligence and the human mind by 24-year-old Brown grad Brian Christian.

The book will follow Mr. Christian’s efforts to “train” for the 2009 Loebner Prize, an annual competition to be held in September that aims to instantiate the Turing Test by asking judges to interact with a set of human beings and computers and then deduce which is which. (Mr. Christian will be one of the humans.) The grand prize is awarded to whoever builds the computer least easily distinguishable from a human being in its ability to respond to the judges’ prompts.

A separate prize honors the person whose responses are most often taken as human by judges. This is the prize that Mr. Christian is going for.



Congratulations, Brian!  Can’t wait to read the book!