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

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

The Most Human Human 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 conv...

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Title:The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive
Author:Brian Christian
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Edition Language:English

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

  • Paul

    Quite simply, the best book I've read, ever. I'm compelled get up out of bed and write down some thoughts after finishing The Most Human Human. I did a double-take when Christian wrote about listening to the Spice Girls in middle school. He writes way beyond his 26 years. On the other-hand maybe those further along in years are writing ever so slightly off the pulse of the intersection of humans and technology. In contrast to What Technology Wants by Kelly, a journalist and also a favorite of mi

    Quite simply, the best book I've read, ever. I'm compelled get up out of bed and write down some thoughts after finishing The Most Human Human. I did a double-take when Christian wrote about listening to the Spice Girls in middle school. He writes way beyond his 26 years. On the other-hand maybe those further along in years are writing ever so slightly off the pulse of the intersection of humans and technology. In contrast to What Technology Wants by Kelly, a journalist and also a favorite of mine, Christian passes some sort of authenticity tech guru turing test.

    I point out his age because, in essence, what I'm left with is faith that we, humans, get better with each generation just as Christian's generation is showing the world. That despite the unbounded trajectory of computing power, Humans are also unbounded. Computing will keep taking ground but humans will keep taking the higher ground. Christian writes that the year the Turing test is passed is not the year to watch. It's the next year, when Humans roll up their sleeves and prove that we are context aware, anti-cliche, anti-summupable, autoincorrectable, entropy-rich, uncompressable and have awoken once more from complacency. The singularity IS near but humans will continue to lead computing right past that non- event. I have new faith that my sons and their generation will be smart as hell as a result of this sublime tension of humans and computing.

  • Danny

    Once awhile we chanced upon a book that really altered the way we look at things. The every-day things.

    Learning from machines to become more human. Doesn’t it sound odd?

    Brain Christian rightly pointed out that computers are tool designed without a specified purpose initially, and tons of applications were designed after computers (tools) were constructed. Now, we can see the power of computing applied to almost every mundane activity.

    With computers seemingly invading all

    Once awhile we chanced upon a book that really altered the way we look at things. The every-day things.

    Learning from machines to become more human. Doesn’t it sound odd?

    Brain Christian rightly pointed out that computers are tool designed without a specified purpose initially, and tons of applications were designed after computers (tools) were constructed. Now, we can see the power of computing applied to almost every mundane activity.

    With computers seemingly invading all territories of our daily activities, taking over human jobs, and with our ever-increasing reliance on computers to manage our schedule and tasks, it is inevitable that we question just how much has machines become human.

    To answer that question, Brian Christian goes on to explore what really make a human.... human?

    The differentiating factor is our unique ability to "communicate" with each other.

    Most languages are designed around a very structured system, yet we adopt an unstructured way to deliver our ideas, thoughts and feelings everyday. Our tendency to add in conversational fillers (uhh, umm), having unique slang, ability to have our own point of view, having a 'stateful' identity, adding in emotions, all are contributing factors that add depth and flow into conversation that makes us human. Something computers just isn't quite there yet.

    By creating new thoughts and ideas, and selectively choosing words, every conversation in itself is a poetry. Conversations with machines are repetition and a mimic of ideas that are after all... inputs.

    Without those 'human' elements, we will never get the form of satisfaction and fulfillment in a conversation with a computer.

    The duels of arguments and counter-arguments.

    The gamble of approvals and rejections.

    The power of anger and encouragement.

    The emotional energy that bounces off two people.

    Conversation with another human being is very much rewarding. Something that computers will never take away from us. And i'll start to treasure the one thing that make me uniquely human.

  • Bruce

    First there was Eliza. Then

    giving way to database-rich Bach- and Beethoven-

    . Then Deep Blue. Then Watson. Soon… R. Giskard Reventlov of Aurora?

    ’s Preserving Machine? Suffice it to say that

    is one of the best nonfiction books it has been my pleasure to read. It touches on all my favorite topics -- recreational math, information theory, philosophy, social psychology, virtual vs. genuine identity – it’s like

    meets

    First there was Eliza. Then

    giving way to database-rich Bach- and Beethoven-

    . Then Deep Blue. Then Watson. Soon… R. Giskard Reventlov of Aurora?

    ’s Preserving Machine? Suffice it to say that

    is one of the best nonfiction books it has been my pleasure to read. It touches on all my favorite topics -- recreational math, information theory, philosophy, social psychology, virtual vs. genuine identity – it’s like

    meets

    as might have been channeled through Alex Trebek.

    Those wishing to preview the themes and overall plot of the book in greater depth can read the author’s

    I did, and can assure you it only whetted my appetite to read the book itself. Nor did this book disappoint.

    For those too time-strapped or lazy to check out the redacted version, here’s a thumbnail sketch. If you only had 5 minutes of text-only IM’ing to convince somebody you were YOU, could you do it? How would a stranger figure out that yours were not the automated responses of a preprogrammed ‘bot, nor that of a phisher, nor even that of David Bowie, but YOU. (Umm, uunless, of course, you *are* David Bowie, in which case, may I suggest you use this book’s premise for your next concept album?) Could you convince them? And how would you do it? How do we recognize each other as distinct individuals? How does one measure the soul? Who are we really?

    That’s the challenge that Christian sets for himself, and if this strikes you as a bit arbitrary as personal challenges go, then you need a bit of background on Alan Turing’s test and its annual incarnation as the Loebner Prize.

    Alan Turing was a math genius who cracked the Nazi’s Enigma code and helped invent the modern-day computer among other things. (This bit of history is fascinating and well worth your time, as you get to meet not only Turing, but guys like Claude Shannon, Johnny Von Neumann, John Nash, and others. Fiction readers can find them in

    ’s

    and the film “A Beautiful Mind;” casual nonfiction readers will find them in books by

    ,

    , and

    , and all of these I highly recommend.

    Turing was fascinated by the idea of artificial intelligence and thinking machines and proposed that the only way to tell the difference between a sentient and nonsentient being was through a basic conservatory audition. Only, instead of some aspiring floutist piping their way through Fauré’s Morceau des Concours in hopes of an appointment, it was an invisible conversant. If the auditors believed their interlocutor to be human, then voila! Whatever turned out to be behind the screen would have to be considered capable of independent thought.

    Seem crazy? Yeah, crazy like a fox, and it was only a matter of time before the Turing test got institutionalized in the form of the Loebner Prize competition, that 5-minute IM thing to which Christian wangled himself an invitation (thus the challenge at the core of this book). However, Christian isn’t content to “just be himself” in the hope and expectation that so doing will prove sufficient to win over the Loebner’s panel of PhD’d judges (psychologists, linguists, computer programmers, etc.), nor does Christian want merely to outcompete the various chatbots entered alongside him and his fellow human controls/confederates. No, Christian is out to prove to all and sundry that not only is he capable of demonstrating his humanity anonymously to strangers, he can do so better than any other human in the competition. Much of the book deals with his efforts as a kind of Rocky Balboa IV, training himself to challenge the Ivan Dragos of chatbots and fellow panelists to a human-off.

    Think it’s easy, do you? Try sitting down next to someone at random on the Acela and striking up a conversation without mentioning the weather or running some other personally pre-programmed bit of dialogue: “Hi, how are you, my name’s ___, where are you headed, etc.” Unless you’re a transactional analyst, you’d be surprised how much of our lives come to us pre-scripted in your typical five-minute span.

    The issues touched on here run from the sublimity of learning to live life to its fullest (by avoiding rote, repetitive experiences) to the ridiculous informational density of language (he shares his results playing

    at p. 227 -– I tried it and can tell you that the phrases given are bizarre, and not always grammatical; anyway, it’s worth playing once). Along the way, he offers a rogues gallery of chatbots -- from the ever-popular therapist Eliza and her patient foil Manny all the way to present-day AIs like the

    – as well as a collection of brain-damaged case-studies the likes of which would fascinate even the pickiest

    fan. If you think you can’t be fooled by a cleverly-written script, the next time you’re desperate for tech help and Click to Chat! to a real-live expert, try getting a rise out of your deponent. Only if you can manage to get it off book and not spewing non sequiturs will you have assurances you have an intelligent counterpart. (This still might not be human, but at this level I think it prejudice to discriminate.)

    The book overruns with ideas. For example, Christian offers a terrific alternative to the zero-sum forensics of debate/Model UN at pp. 179-180 that manages to promote constructive, persuasive argument and collaboration in a competitive context that all educators should be made to read. For another, there’s this brilliant passage at p. 237 that all Goodreaders ought to appreciate:

    is really a wonderful book. You can take it from me, assuming that at this point in my exegesis I have indeed managed not only to bring you round, but have done so without you having recourse to wonder whether or not *I* and only I wrote this text -- without resort to plagiarism, paraphrase, or other outside assistance organic or otherwise. (See, e.g., my trilogy of essays on this conundrum,

    .)

    To put it another way: everything that has ever been written or will ever be written can be found in the Universal Library (including all languages, all typos, all lossless compressions of all 4D smellavision film versions, and this review). It has been said (by

    , I believe, that it would take more matter than we know to actually be in existence to replicate the Library. On this basis alone, you’d think it safe to conclude that no computer could be devised to make appropriate selections… that each distinct work must be the result of an independently operating, organic intelligence. But computers are matter as we are matter, and we believe ourselves each to have a unique identity, a unique voice.

    Brian Christian argues passionately that we can work at and improve our too-human, perfectly-flawed organic experience, and thereby exalt ourselves. We need never lose a *real* Turing test to a computer, however it may be run. Of course, computers, programmers' children, are wonderful mimics.

    It's only a matter of time.

  • Mishehu

    At last, proof positive that degrees in philosophy and poetry superbly complement a degree in computer science! TMHH is an extended think piece, thread through with prose poetic writing, on how human minds and silicon ones are alike and how they differ. It is a hugely thought-provoking book, sentence after paragraph after page after page. Judging from its jacket photo, the author is a pretty young guy (a striking contrast with the depth and maturity of the book in review). May he have a long and

    At last, proof positive that degrees in philosophy and poetry superbly complement a degree in computer science! TMHH is an extended think piece, thread through with prose poetic writing, on how human minds and silicon ones are alike and how they differ. It is a hugely thought-provoking book, sentence after paragraph after page after page. Judging from its jacket photo, the author is a pretty young guy (a striking contrast with the depth and maturity of the book in review). May he have a long and fruitful writing career ahead of him. And may he continue cogitating on the blurring boundaries between man and machine. There's enormous wisdom in his thinking. Splendid book.

  • B Schrodinger

    "Algorithms To Live By" was such a special find. It spoke to me and how I think in so many ways. I know human behaviour is weird and varied, but there are patterns. And I am always looking to streamline what I do. And I am always asking why do we do it that way? Surely there's a better way to do this!

    So, I've been getting around to Brian's previous book for a few months. And it was also magnificent. Not quite so good, but still a humdinger!

    Brian takes us into his world of the Turing

    "Algorithms To Live By" was such a special find. It spoke to me and how I think in so many ways. I know human behaviour is weird and varied, but there are patterns. And I am always looking to streamline what I do. And I am always asking why do we do it that way? Surely there's a better way to do this!

    So, I've been getting around to Brian's previous book for a few months. And it was also magnificent. Not quite so good, but still a humdinger!

    Brian takes us into his world of the Turing Test. Of being a designated human in the lot. He looks at how similar our cultures and behaviour are away from a potential programmed AI, and he talks of how computers were made in our image, and how we make ourselves into their image. There are some meaty ideas in here.

    And I listened to it via Audible, read by Brian himself who is a wonderful speaker. His reading is full of nuance and is much more like a lecture than a reading.

  • ashley c

    I have a special interest in the philosophy of the mind - and I love reading and re-reading what people have to say about the brain, or mind, or soul. The computational theory of mind is the main angle that Christian explored in this book through the Turing Test and its implications. An AI passes the Turing Test when it's indistinguishable from a human, usually determined through conversation with another human. And there were times throughout history where different AI programs

    pass the test -

    I have a special interest in the philosophy of the mind - and I love reading and re-reading what people have to say about the brain, or mind, or soul. The computational theory of mind is the main angle that Christian explored in this book through the Turing Test and its implications. An AI passes the Turing Test when it's indistinguishable from a human, usually determined through conversation with another human. And there were times throughout history where different AI programs

    pass the test - even if it was just for 5 minutes. Christian presents a wonderful mish-mash of thoughts, comparisons, personal experiences, and research. The book was so stuffed full of ideas and I devoured them eagerly.

    Christian's book can be rambling a large portion of the time - it feels like a raw unedited draft with all his ideas and thoughts. It didn't bother me that much because I'm intrigued by most things he's wrote - but it would have been better if it was more structured.

    Something he said struck me: that currently, one of the biggest things that separates humans from AIs is that a human actively responds to new information and it's environment. We essentially change after every single new experience we have, because we are always adapting, updating ourselves. Whereas a programmed AI is limited to its program. Even when it's programmed to learn from new experiences it doesn't decide

    it learns, only what. (I'm probably not doing this justice and I'm probably wrong, but that was my takeaway.) It blew me away.

  • Gendou

    This is one of the most poorly written must-reads I've ever read. The topic of artificial intelligence is very important and well-researched by the author. But the delivery is couched in half-baked philosophy and capital abuse of the poetic license. Many times I paused the audiobook to yell at Brian Christian.

    "Just say what you MEAN!"

    "I don't think that word means what you think it means!"

    This book's saving grace is that he did a really cool thing. He was a human "c

    This is one of the most poorly written must-reads I've ever read. The topic of artificial intelligence is very important and well-researched by the author. But the delivery is couched in half-baked philosophy and capital abuse of the poetic license. Many times I paused the audiobook to yell at Brian Christian.

    "Just say what you MEAN!"

    "I don't think that word means what you think it means!"

    This book's saving grace is that he did a really cool thing. He was a human "confederate" on the Loebner prize. This contest implements the famous Turing Test. There's a prize for the most human computer, and the most human human, thus the book's title. The author won the later prize, mostly by typing everything that popped into his head, but also by studying what makes people vote "human" on the other end.

    This journey takes us through all the different tricks AI programmers use to make their chat bots believable. It doesn't go into depth on algorithms, but it doesn't really need to. When he tries to talk jargon, he gets it horribly wrong. I remember something about "statistical" vs. "algorithmic" programming that made no sense to this reader with a bachelor's degree in computer science...

    The book also talks about the history of AI programming, from checkers to chess, etc.

    One of the stupidest parts of the book was the theme early on with the left vs. right hemisphere of the brain. Christian dragged this neuroscience fact through the dirt and into the realm of nonsense philosophy. He argues that we should teach "right-brained" stuff in school like dance. This is wrong. You don't need a PhD in dance to be a dancer. You do need a PhD physics to be a doctor or physicist. These disciplines are different, and one has unique value above the other simply because it's useful to society. Liberal arts degrees do grow on trees, you know.

    He also thinks that Catholic guild, Von Neumann architecture, and analytical thinking are all left-brained. They aren't. That's a pernicious and foolish myth. Brian Christian should know better.

    He has this weird fertilization of "analytical thinking" that it's somehow lower than other types of thinking simply because it's how computers think. This is backwards. It's the highest form of thinking, and that's why we're able to program it into computers. Other forms of thinking are more messy, less objective, and less specific to the real world. Other forms of thinking may be site-specific (to use one of Brian Christian's favorite pieces of jargon) to your situation or your own feelings, but that doesn't make these other forms of thinking better in any way.

    Take away all that personal context, and the only type of thinking you have left at the bottom of the barrel is a thin film of "analytical thinking".

    I sound like Brian Freaking Christian right now...

  • Ivy

    This is a fine book. Which is a huge disappointment, because it could have been excellent. It has one of the best premises--and best titles--of any book to come out recently. It got a lot of press, because the interest in the topic is immediate and obvious.

    With all that, I wanted a story of the Loebner Prize and the author's quest for the Most Human Human award, along with some computer science and philosophy. I didn't get a story of the Loebner Prize--at all. He talks about leading

    This is a fine book. Which is a huge disappointment, because it could have been excellent. It has one of the best premises--and best titles--of any book to come out recently. It got a lot of press, because the interest in the topic is immediate and obvious.

    With all that, I wanted a story of the Loebner Prize and the author's quest for the Most Human Human award, along with some computer science and philosophy. I didn't get a story of the Loebner Prize--at all. He talks about leading up to it, makes a few references to the actual event randomly throughout, and then skips to the award ceremony, which was profoundly disappointing.

    As for the computer science and philosophy, well... There's a lot of it.

    Christian talks about human speech patterns, which, in spoken conversation, are overlapping, interrupting, digressing--everything but linear. Maybe it was his intent to write the book that way, but if it was, it's an impressive failure. There are some chapters that have a coherent direction. But most of them randomly wander off and never get to the point. You might find yourself suddenly reading about Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium and never quite figure out how that has anything at all to do with the Turing test. Sometimes he'll give a bit of a precis at the start of the chapter, but then he won't follow it.

    And there are all these headers throughout, which contain no structural value at all. It seems like he wrote the thing and then just stuck a header in whenever a pun occured to him. Or whenever he realized that this page-long bit has nothing to do with anything in the text surrounding it. And they're all A-heads, so they don't help create a sense of hierarchy. There are also random epigraphs, sometimes in the middle of a section. I get it, dude, you studied philosophy and poetry. You know stuff. But you need to work all of this material together into a coherent whole, instead of leaving all the lumps in the gravy.

    So as you read, you find yourself in a forty-page long digression about data entropy and compression algorithms. Or not even a digression, really, because "digression" implies some sort of starting off point, and the only relation this seems to have to the purported topic of the book is that he read about it while researching the book. And there are some interesting things about how video compression works in there, but somewhere in the hour or so of reading this chapter, you start to wonder what the hell happened to the narrative.

    The chapters that I liked best were the ones I read all in one sitting--it seems like you need to take this book in hundred-page chunks in order for him to wander back to his topic often enough to figure out what's going on.

    There are interesting things in this book. But--honestly--the interesting things have already been mined. I've heard several radio stories based on this book, and a few more brushing the same topics (on This American Life and Radiolab). Those stories were a lot better than this book is. Which shows what a really talented journalist can do with the material. Christian, on the other hand, mostly squanders it.

  • Nikki

    I was hoping for more of the artificial intelligence part of this book, but it turned out to be more "what we can do better than AIs", which wasn't quite what I was interested in. It's an interesting meditation on what sets us apart, in some places, though it's lacking in organisation -- if I tried to turn in my dissertation with such random chaptering and subtitles, I'd be whacked over the head with the red pen of loving correction by my supervisor. It didn't flow at all well. And I know it's n

    I was hoping for more of the artificial intelligence part of this book, but it turned out to be more "what we can do better than AIs", which wasn't quite what I was interested in. It's an interesting meditation on what sets us apart, in some places, though it's lacking in organisation -- if I tried to turn in my dissertation with such random chaptering and subtitles, I'd be whacked over the head with the red pen of loving correction by my supervisor. It didn't flow at all well. And I know it's non-fiction, but it felt clunkily info-dumpy. Half the time I was going

    and the other half

    .

    I think this could be a very interesting book, if it caters to what you're interested in. I was more interested in the artificial intelligences, of which there's very little direct discussion...

  • Bill Horne

    In principle, I should have loved this book. I did my PhD in machine learning. I have a fascination with philosophy. But, I found it somewhat tedious at times. I kept wanting to hear more about his actual experience with the competition. He should have included the transcript, or at least more excerpts. But, there was not very much about his experience with the competition at all. Instead it was a collection of examples of how humans differ from computers, or how ideas from AI apply to humans, e

    In principle, I should have loved this book. I did my PhD in machine learning. I have a fascination with philosophy. But, I found it somewhat tedious at times. I kept wanting to hear more about his actual experience with the competition. He should have included the transcript, or at least more excerpts. But, there was not very much about his experience with the competition at all. Instead it was a collection of examples of how humans differ from computers, or how ideas from AI apply to humans, etc. I thought the last major chapter on compression could have, ironically, been compressed.

    On the plus side, it's a very unique book. There were some very interesting observations. It was well written, and at times the writing was quite funny.

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