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Authors: Brian Christian

The Most Human Human

BOOK: The Most Human Human
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Copyright © 2011 by Brian Christian

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

www.doubleday.com

DOUBLEDAY and the DD colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Portions of this work were previously published in
The Atlantic

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Richard Wilbur for permission to reprint a portion of “The Beautiful Changes.”

Jacket design by Tal Goretsky
Jacket illustration by gears © Bettmann/CORBIS
Head ©
istockphoto.com
/Mark Strozier

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Christian, Brian, 1984–
The most human human : what talking with computers teaches us about
what it means to be alive / Brian Christian. p. cm.
1. Philosophical anthropology. 2. Human beings. 3. Turing test. I. Title. II. Title: What talking with computers teaches us about what it means to be alive.
BD450.C5356 2011
128—dc22
2010048572

eISBN: 978-0-385-53307-2

v3.1_r1

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

For my teachers

The beautiful changes as a forest is changed
By a chameleon’s tuning his skin to it;
As a mantis, arranged
On a green leaf, grows
Into it, makes the leaf leafier …

–RICHARD WILBUR

I think metaphysics is good if it
improves everyday life; otherwise forget it
.

–ROBERT PIRSIG

As President, I believe that robotics can
inspire young people to pursue science and
engineering. And I also want to keep an eye
on those robots, in case they try anything
.

–BARACK OBAMA

0. Prologue

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 signal transmission
.

She was a computer
.

1. Introduction:
The Most Human Human

I wake up five thousand miles from home in a hotel room with no shower: for the first time in fifteen years, I take a bath. I eat, as is traditional, some slightly ominous-looking tomatoes, some baked beans, and four halves of white toast that come on a tiny metal rack, shelved vertically, like books. Then I step out into the salty air and walk the coastline of the country that invented my language, despite my not being able to understand a good portion of the signs I pass on my way—
LET AGREED
, one says, prominently, in large print, and it means nothing to me.

I pause, and stare dumbly at the sea for a moment, parsing and reparsing the sign in my head. Normally these kinds of linguistic curiosities and cultural gaps interest and intrigue me; today, though, they are mostly a cause for concern. In the next two hours I will sit down at a computer and have a series of five-minute instant-message chats with several strangers. At the other end of these chats will be a psychologist, a linguist, a computer scientist, and the host of a popular British technology show. Together they form a judging panel, and my goal in these conversations is one of the strangest things I’ve ever been asked to do.

I must convince them that I’m human.

Fortunately, I
am
human; unfortunately, it’s not clear how much that will help.

The Turing Test

Each year, the artificial intelligence (AI) community convenes for the field’s most anticipated and controversial annual event—a competition called the Turing test. The test is named for British mathematician Alan Turing, one of the founders of computer science, who in 1950 attempted to answer one of the field’s earliest questions:
Can machines think?
That is, would it ever be possible to construct a computer so sophisticated that it could actually be said to be thinking, to be intelligent, to have a mind? And if indeed there were, someday, such a machine: How would we know?

Instead of debating this question on purely theoretical grounds, Turing proposed an experiment. A panel of judges poses questions by computer terminal to a pair of unseen correspondents, one a human “confederate,” the other a computer program, and attempts to discern which is which. There are no restrictions on what can be said: the dialogue can range from small talk to the facts of the world (e.g., how many legs ants have, what country Paris is in) to celebrity gossip and heavy-duty philosophy—the whole gamut of human conversation. Turing predicted that by the year 2000, computers would be able to fool 30 percent of human judges after five minutes of conversation, and that as a result “one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.”

Turing’s prediction has not come to pass; at the 2008 contest, however, held in Reading, England, the top program came up shy of that mark by just a single vote. The 2009 test in Brighton could be the decisive one.

And I am participating in it, as one of four human confederates going head-to-head (head-to-motherboard?) against the top AI programs. In each of several rounds, I, along with the other confederates, will be paired off with an AI program and a judge—and will have the task of convincing the latter that I am, in fact, human.

The judge will talk to one of us for five minutes, then the other,
and then has ten minutes to reflect and make his choice about which one of us he believes is the human. Judges will also note, on a sliding scale, their confidence in this judgment—this is used in part as a tie-breaking measure. The program that receives the highest share of votes and confidence from the judges each year (regardless of whether it “passes the Turing test” by fooling 30 percent of them) is awarded the “Most Human Computer” title. It is this title that the research teams are all gunning for, the one that the money awards, the one with which the organizers and spectators are principally concerned. But there is also, intriguingly, another title, one given to the
confederate
who elicited the greatest number of votes and greatest confidence from the judges: the “Most Human Human” award.

One of the first winners, in 1994, was
Wired
columnist Charles Platt. How’d he do it? By “being moody, irritable, and obnoxious,” he says—which strikes me as not only hilarious and bleak but also, in some deeper sense, a call to arms: How, in fact, do we be the most human humans we can be—not only under the constraints of the test, but in life?

Joining the Confederacy

The sponsor and organizer of the Turing test (this particular incarnation of which is known as the Loebner Prize) is a colorful and somewhat curious figure: plastic roll-up portable disco dance floor baron Hugh Loebner. When asked his motives for backing and orchestrating this annual Turing test, Loebner cites
laziness
, of all things: his utopian future, apparently, is one in which unemployment rates are nearly 100 percent and virtually all of human endeavor and industry is outsourced to intelligent machines. I must say, this vision of the future makes me feel little but despair, and I have my own, quite different ideas about what an AI-populated world would look like and reasons for participating in the test. But in any event, the central question of how computers are reshaping our sense of self, and what the ramifications of that process will be, is clearly the crucial one.

Not entirely sure how to go about becoming a confederate, I started at the top: by trying to reach Hugh Loebner himself. I quickly found his website, where, amid a fairly inscrutable amalgam of material about crowd-control stanchions,
1
sex-work activism,
2
and a scandal involving the composition of Olympic medals,
3
I was able to find information on his eponymous prize, along with his email address. He replied by giving me the name of Philip Jackson, a professor at the University of Surrey, who is the one in charge of the logistics for this year’s Loebner Prize contest in Brighton, where it will be held under the auspices of the 2009 Interspeech conference on speech and communication science.

I was able to get in touch via Skype with Professor Jackson, a young, smart guy with the distinct brand of harried enthusiasm that characterizes an overworked but fresh-faced academic. That and his charming Briticisms, like pronouncing “skeletal” so it’d rhyme with “a beetle”: I liked him immediately.

He asked me about myself, and I explained that I’m a nonfiction writer of science and philosophy, specifically of the ways in which science and philosophy intersect with daily life, and that I’m fascinated by the idea of the Turing test and of the “Most Human Human.” For one, there’s a romantic notion as a confederate of
defending the human race
, à la Garry Kasparov vs. Deep Blue—and soon, Ken
Jennings of
Jeopardy!
fame vs. the latest IBM system, Watson. (The mind also leaps to other, more
Terminator–
and
The Matrix–type
fantasies, although the Turing test promises to involve
significantly
fewer machine guns.) When I read that the machines came up shy of passing the 2008 test by just one single vote, and realized that 2009 might be the year they finally cross the threshold, a steely voice inside me rose up seemingly out of nowhere.
Not on my watch
.

More than this, though, the test raises a number of questions, exciting as well as troubling, at the intersection of computer science, cognitive science, philosophy, and daily life. As someone who has studied and written about each of these areas, and who has published peer-reviewed cognitive science research, I find the Turing test particularly compelling for the way it manages to draw from and connect them all. As we chatted, I told Professor Jackson that I thought I might have something rather unique to bring to the Loebner Prize, in terms of both the actual performance of being a confederate and relating that experience, along with the broader questions and issues raised by the test, to a large audience—which would start what I think could be a fascinating and important conversation in the public culture at large. It wasn’t hard to get him to agree, and soon my name was on the confederate roster.

BOOK: The Most Human Human
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