The Most Human Human: What Talking With Computers Teaches Us About What It Means To Be Alive

Brian Christian

Created on Friday, September 2, 2011.
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The threat of chatbots tricking Turing Test judges into believing they are talking with people is ever-present, and in preparing to out-human these bots in the 2009 competition, Brian Christian tried to discover what it means to be human, and how we can be more human to each other.


“What a familiarity with the construction of Turing test bots had begun showing me was that we fail — again and again — to actually be human with other humans, so maddeningly much of the time. And it had begun showing me how we fail — and what to do about it.


The story of the twenty-first century will be, in part, the story of the drawing and redrawing of these battle lines, the story of Homo sapiens trying to stake a claim on shifting ground, flanked on both sides by beast and machine, pinned between meat and math.”


“Here’s the thing: beyond its use as a technological benchmark, beyond even the philosophical, biological, and moral questions it poses, the Turing test is, at bottom, about the act of communication. I see its deepest questions as practical ones: How do we connect meaningfully with each other, as meaningfully as possible, within the limits of language and time? How does empathy work? What is the process by which someone comes into our life and comes to mean something to us? These, to me, are the test’s most central questions — the most central questions of being human.”


"”Man vs. machine” or “wetware vs. hardware” or “carbon vs. silicon”–type rhetoric obscures what I think is the crucial distinction, which is between method and method’s opposite: which I would define as “judgment,” “discovery,” “figuring out,” and, an idea that we’ll explore in greater detail in a couple pages, “site-specificity.” We are replacing people not with machines, nor with computers, so much as with method.

And whether it’s humans or computers carrying that method out feels secondary. (The earliest games of computer chess were played without computers. Alan Turing would play games of “paper chess” by calculating, by hand, with a pencil and pad, a move-selection algorithm he’d written.

Programming this procedure into a computer merely makes the process go faster.) What we are fighting for, in the twenty-first century, is the continued existence of conclusions not already foregone — the continued relevance of judgment and discovery and figuring out, and the ability to continue to exercise them.


“It’s clear from all of this that AI is not really the enemy. In fact, it may be that AI is what extricates us from this process — and what identifies it. Friends of mine who work in software talk about how a component of their job often involves working directly on problems while simultaneously developing automated tools to work on those problems. Are they writing themselves out of a job? No, the consensus seems to be that they move on to progressively harder, subtler, and more complex problems, problems that demand more thought and judgment. They make their jobs, in other words, more human.”


“I think, quite earnestly, that all high school students should be taught how to program. It will give our next generation a well-deserved indignation at the repetitiveness and rule-bound-ness of some of the things they’ll be asked to do. And it will also give them the solution.”


“Murcutt himself doesn’t find this scale-restraint, rare though it is, odd in the slightest. “Life is not about maximizing everything,” he says. His wariness of scaling applies not only to his own operation but to the designs themselves. “One of the great problems of our period is that we’ve developed tools that allow rapidity, but rapidity and repetitiveness do not lead to right solutions. Perception gives us right solutions.””


“For me, though, complacency — because it is a form of disengagement — is a whisker away from despair. I don’t want life to be “solved”; I don’t want it to be solv_able_. There is comfort in method: because we don’t always have to reinvent everything at every minute, and because our lives are similar enough to others’ lives, the present similar enough to the past that, for example, wisdom is possible. But wisdom that feels final rather than provisional, an ending rather than starting point, that doesn’t ultimately defer to an even larger mystery is deadening. I won’t have it. Perception gives us right solutions.”


“I suppose we need Lincoln-Douglas debates and parliamentary debates and things like that in our high schools to train the lawyers of tomorrow, but how will we train the spouses and committee members and colleagues and teammates of tomorrow? We get to see how well presidential candidates can hack down, rebut, and debunk their rivals: How will we get to see how well they argue constructively, how they barter, coax, mollify, appease — which is what they will actually spend their term in office doing?”


“Just a few months ago I fell into this trap; recalling the Pirsig quotation got me out. I was detachedly roaming the Internet, but there was nothing interesting happening in the news, nothing interesting happening on Facebook… I grew despondent, depressed — the world used to seem so interesting … But all of a sudden it dawned on me, as if the thought had just occurred to me, that much of what is interesting and amazing about the world did not happen in the past twenty-four hours. How had this fact slipped away from me? (Goethe: “He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living hand to mouth.”) Somehow I think the Internet is making this very critical point lost on an entire demographic. Anyway, I read some Thoreau and some Keats and was much happier.”


“No, I think that, while certainly the first year that computers pass the Turing test will be a historic, epochal one, it does not mark the end of the story. No, I think, indeed, that the next year’s Turing test will truly be the one to watch — the one where we humans, knocked to the proverbial canvas, must pull ourselves up; the one where we learn how to be better friends, artists, teachers, parents, lovers; the one where we come back.

More human than ever. I want to be there for that.”


“Like most conversations and most chess games, we all start off the same and we all end up the same, with a brief moment of difference in between. Fertilization to fertilizer. Ashes to ashes. And we spark across the gap.”

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
© Desi Quintans, 2002 – 2022.