A.I. Could Soon Be the ‘Most Human Human’

January 8, 2013

With computers quickly outstripping humans in terms of sheer number-crunching capabilities and scientists and engineers finding ever-changing ways to make this technology smarter, faster, and able to learn, plenty of people have wondered over the last several decades just how long it will be until we can no longer distinguish computers from their human creators. The question of programming an artificial intelligence that mimics human intelligence, insight, and behavior has long fascinated the public at large, along with the potential ramifications that could result. And one need only look to popular movies like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, ‘A.I.’, and ‘The Matrix’ trilogy to see how this prospect both compels and alarms us. In his audio book, ‘The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What it Means to Be Alive’, Brian Christian delves into the heart of the issue.

In 2009, Christian was asked to participate in the Turing Test, named after renowned computer scientist Alan Turing. The test, held annually, pits a panel of human judges against hidden contestants, both human and computer, challenging them to interact with each via text in an attempt to determine which respondents are human and which are computers. The computer that fools the judges most often wins the award for the Most Human Computer. But one of the human competitors will also receive the Most Human Human award. Upon his selection as a contestant, Christian became determined to find a way to win this honor (hence the title of his audio book).

With his exercise in “speed dating” looming, Christian began to prepare by studying a variety of topics related to human interaction and pursuits, hoping to discover ways in which humans are uniquely separate from computers. He delved not only into poetry, philosophy, and human dialogue in his attempts to square away human quirks from the rapid processing power of computers, but also singularly human pursuits, such as the art of crafting the perfect pickup line. With computers being programmed to imitate human thought, deduction, innovation, and more, Christian had to explore the very nature of humanity in order to see what sets us apart from the computing machinery we create.

Although the issue is certainly complex, it ultimately came down to a question of logic versus emotional intelligence. While computers can be trained to behave logically, and even programmed to follow logical emotional conclusions to stimuli, they cannot feel the same emotions as humans. And it is our compassion, our anger, our humor, and our wide range of emotional responses that set us apart. And in Christian’s estimation, this component of our humanity is being lost in a mad dash to make humans more like computers, rather than the other way around.

You don’t have to be a genius to realize that computers are coming closer and closer to the event horizon at which they will be indistinguishable from humans. And the Turing Test may soon be become irrelevant as one computer after another passes as human. But Christian urges listeners to take away a more important message – that we must strive to hang onto our own humanity in a world that is quickly giving itself over to technology and the complacence and indifference that it is prone to produce.

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