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

Brian Christian
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 1 2011 9780385533065 978-0385533065 First Edition
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 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?

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"Illuminating.....an irreverent picaresque that follows its hero from the recondite arena of the 'Nicomachean Ethics' to the even more recondite arena of legal depositions to perhaps the most recondite arena of all, that of speed dating.....As THE MOST HUMAN HUMAN demonstrates, Christian has taken his own words to heart. An authentic son of Frost, he learns by going here he has to go, and in doing so proves that both he and his book deserve their title."--New York Times Book Review

"Terrific.....one of the rare successful literary offspring of Gödel, Escher, Bach, where art and science meet an engaged mind and the friction produces real fire......dense with ideas"--The New Yorker

"Absorbing.....Mr. Christian cleverly suggests that the Turing Test not only tells us how smart computers are but also teaches us about ourselves....Mr. Christian covers a great deal of ground with admirable clarity but with a lightness of touch, and he never tries too hard. He also has a real knack for summing up key ideas by applying them to real-life situations....Following Mr. Christian's advice, we should not see this victory as a threat but as a chance to learn even more about who we are. Every technology that seems to dehumanize us is an opportunity to rehumanize ourselves"--The Wall Street Journal

"Questions about what computers are doing to our minds lie at the heart of.....[this] charming, friendly, and often funny read."--The Boston Globe

"[A] curious look into the history and potential of artificial intelligence, and a brilliant comparison between artificial intelligence and our natural variety. Christian may have won a prize demonstrating his humanness, but confirms his victory in this humane, humorous and thought-provoking book.....Christian wants to call attention to how special we are, and his book is a succes"--Columbus Dispatch

"A fascinating exploration of what it means to be human. This book will surely change the way readers think about their conversations."--Booklist, starred review

"A heady exploration of the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI) and human nature. Christian's examination of the way machines are forcing us to appreciate what it means to be human leads him to explore everything from poetry, chess and existentialism…[and] offers an overview of the history of AI."
-- Kirkus Reviews


"Exhilarating....it does make you think. Reading it, I constantly found my mind pinging off of whatever Christian was discussing and into flights of exploratory speculation about the amount of information encoded in the seemingly routine exchanges of small talk or the reasons why it's much harder to tell a false story in reverse chronological order. It's an unusual book whose primary gift lies in distracting you from itself. I'd like to see the computers come up with something like that."--Salon

"This is a strange, fertile, and sometimes beautiful book. It has been said that man creates images of himself, then comes to resemble the images. Something like this seems to be going on with the computer. Brian Christian writes with a rare combination of what Pascal took to be two contrary mindsets: the spirit of geometry and the spirit of finesse. He takes both the deep limitations and halting progress of artificial intelligence as an occasion for thinking about the most human activity—the art of conversation."
--Matthew B. Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft

"This is such an important book, a book I've been waiting and hoping for. Machines are getting so smart that it forces us to take a completely fresh look at what smart is, and at what human is. Brian Christian takes on this very weighty task, and somehow makes it fun. Christian is nimble, insightful, and humble -- a very human human, indeed, and one you will like very much."
- David Shenk, author of The Forgetting, The Immortal Game, and The Genius in All of Us 
 
 
"THE MOST HUMAN HUMAN is immensely ambitious and bold, intellectually provocative, while at the same time entertaining and witty – a delightful book about how to live a meaningful, thriving life."
--Alan Lightman, author of Einstein’s Dreams and Ghost

"A book exploring the wild frontiers of chat-bots is appealing enough; I never expected to discover in its pages such an eye-opening inquest into human imagination, thought, conversation, love and deception. Who would have guessed that the best way to understand humanity was to study its imitators?"
--David Eagleman, author of Sum and Why The Net Matters

About the Author

BRIAN CHRISTIAN holds a dual degree from Brown University in computer science and philosophy, and an MFA in poetry. His work has appeared in both literary and scientific journals.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars One of the craziest things humans do... July 16 2011
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
One of the craziest things humans do is... chatting with a computer and trying to figure out if it's human or not. Wow! Way to go, humans :))

But I really enjoyed Brian Christian's sense of humor and, most of all, his rich English language. Until I opened this book, I'd been thinking that even though I was not a native speaker of English, I had a decent English vocabulary. My god, this writer knows how to surprise in a linguistic sense! No wonder, he's got the degrees in computer science and philosophy as well as poetry. Let me tell you something, if you are preparing for some crazy test like GRE, this is the book to read. Besides, I'm grateful to B. Christian's generous sharing and intriguing choice of the books for further reading.

"The Most Human Human" is an amazing book. I really enjoyed reading it, particularly the curious anecdotes from the Turing competitions and the preparations for them. On the downside, I'd say the author's obsession with us trying to stay human and not resemble the computers is a bit perplexing since stating the rules of how to achieve this objective is in a way an attempt to systematize, simplify, codify human behavior (or language in this case)...

I think there is nothing wrong with people resembling computers even though it might look degrading in the case of phone operators. This is a typical case of Pygmalion's wish. We always want what we create to be part of us...
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5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant. Profound. Poetic. Nov. 3 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
I liked everything about this book. It took me on a surprising, insightful, inspiring journey through the lands of artificial intelligence, philosophy and what we can learn about what and how it means to be human.

I recommend it to anyone interested in computing, philosophy, or the arts of writing and conversation.

I will be coming back to this book over and over again, I have no doubt.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.3 out of 5 stars  49 reviews
47 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding Artificial Intelligence and human interaction March 8 2011
By William Bolen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Excellent, well written book on computers that gives a different perspective. After watching "Watson" win on jeopardy, I was amazed at the ability of the computer to seemingly think about endless trivia. Calculations happen at warp speed but it is still hard to imagine that a machine can seem to imitate human thought. Mr Christian does a marvelous job explaining the history of AI, how computers really work to simulate human thought and what computers teach us about ourselves. His prose is clear and concise making for a very enjoyable read. Very well done! Highly recommended.
15 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Starts Off Great. Lets You Down Hard. Dec 11 2011
By TFK - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Not a fan of critiquing. I just like to share my experiences.

I can describe this book in two ways; one of them is the title of my review, the other is the title of another 2/5 review here on Amazon: "Maddeningly Unfocused".

The book starts off great, very appeasing to a geek like myself who's into some light reading. The book takes a nosedive once it gets heavy on pretentious philosophy, random (and frequent) musings, and page after page of content that makes you go "wait, what does this have to do with anything?!"

Had the book continued the way it started, I would be its biggest fan. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

Still, some pages worth reading. 2/5
33 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Art and Science of Conversation March 5 2011
By Teknisk Läsare - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is wonderfully readable, timely, informative and intriguing. The author makes potentially difficult subjects such as artificial intelligence and super-computer technologies accessible and entertaining. We learn how even the most sophisticated and complex machines humans can create, struggle mightily to do a simple, basic human activity - engage in conversations.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Understanding How We Think and How Computers Do Not April 24 2011
By R. Hardy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
You say you are a human. Now, prove it. Wait, wait - it's too easy to point to your face or to perform a tap dance as you sing "Bicycle Built for Two." That will not do at all. You must, instead, at your computer terminal type in your part of a conversation that will show to the other conversationalist that you are not yourself a computer. And you will be competing with computers who have been programmed to try to prove that they are humans. This is the basis for the Loebner Prize, a controversial annual competition within the artificial intelligence community. A panel of judges has a series of five-minute-long conversations via screen and keyboard; at the other end of the conversation might be a computer programmed to pretend to be a human or it might be a human trying to dissuade the judges that they are typing to a computer. The judges, of course, don't know beforehand who is who (or, I suppose, what is what), and vote for the conversations that seem most human to them. The Most Human Computer Award, a research grant, goes to the programmers of the best computer conversationalist. But oddly, there is a Most Human Human award for the human who did the best job of making the judges think they were typing to a human. In 2009, Brian Christian won the award, and he has written about it in _The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive_ (Doubleday). It is a curious look into the history and potential of artificial intelligence, and a brilliant comparison between artificial intelligence and our natural variety. Christian may have won a prize demonstrating his humanness, but confirms his victory in this humane, humorous, and thought-provoking book. "In a sense," he tells us, "this is a book about artificial intelligence, the story of its history and of my own personal involvement, in my own small way, in that history. But at the core, it's a book about living life."

The Loebner Prize grew out of the Turing Test. Alan Turing was a brilliant British mathematician and codebreaker who in 1950 wrote about the test and predicted that it would be but fifty years before a computer could play the imitation game so well that the average interrogator could not tell it from a human. He was overoptimistic; programs competing for the Loebner Prize are doing better and better, and although they are not yet conversing as well as humans, to read Christian's book is to be convinced that someday it is going to happen. There are manuals to tell programmers how best to make conversation realistic, but Christian discovers there are no such guides to tell humans how to show themselves human. He talks with former competitors (and seems to have a collegial relationship with the humans who were in the tests with him) to get advice. Much of the book involves his interviews with linguists, information theorists, philosophers, and even lawyers about what the Turing Test means, and thereby what it means to be human, and the best ways to show it. And whatever it is that computers do, it is not thinking like we do. For instance, there is a conversational program called Cleverbot, which has been awarded prizes in the competition. It has a website, and not only can humans visit it and engage in conversation, Cleverbot borrows from what they tell it. It takes samples of these conversations and from the samples it makes its own answers and remarks. Since Cleverbot is an amalgamation of conversations, even though it can crunch a huge database of words and phrases actually used by humans, it doesn't do too well with even the most basic of conversation starters. "Where are you from?" I asked, and it said, "I don't know."

That's a true answer, of course! None of the computer programs comes close to knowing anything. Christian often asks us to look at an example of successful artificial intelligence, Deep Blue which defeated Garry Kasparov in chess in 1997. There is no doubt that the computer was playing chess. It might even be said to be planning moves or playing aggressively. But it had no idea what it was doing; it could not tell you what a pawn was, nor could it feel any thrill of victory. No conversation programs have any idea what they are doing, either; they are all simulating conversation. Some of the conversational give-and-takes reproduced here are just clunkers, remarks no human would make, but there are others that are surprisingly life-like. They are really conversations, just like Deep Blue was really playing chess, although the conversational computers are not nearly so good at their job as Deep Blue was at its job. It is comforting, in a way, that computers are so bad at something we take for granted, just chatting. Christian wants to call attention to how special we are, and his book is a success, showing that, among other things, humans can take into account context, allusion, and metaphor, which computers cannot. Even more important, when humans don't understand what has been said, they don't have to risk saying something stupid in response; they can ask questions to aid understanding, but computers have no understanding to be aided. It would be so fascinating to hear what Turing would say about these machines, or about the next generation of them that really is going to be able to converse with some sort of naturalness. What would Turing think, for instance, if Cleverbot turned really clever and sampled its huge database of conversations so well that it really was a good conversation partner? It's hard to believe that Turing would think that such successful sampling would actually be thinking. We will have reliable conversational computers sometime fairly soon; I predict that at that point, we will still be asking if computers are ever going to be able to think.
22 of 28 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Maddeningly unfocused July 8 2011
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
The central subject is the author's experience participating in a Turing test competition, but the majority of the book consists of rambling digressions and shallow philosophizing, sprinkled with self-indulgent irrelevancies. I got the feeling that while he was working on the book, whenever any random thought that could somehow be tacked onto the existing mass of text popped into his head, he immediately ran to the computer to add it to his manuscript, marveling at his own brilliance all the while. He relies too heavily on questions masquerading as insights, along the lines of "Could it be that this is what makes humans human?"

The parts that actually had to do with the Turing test competition, and the strategies employed in it by humans and computers, were actually quite interesting. But there was too little of that, and it was frustrating because it was so incomplete and doled out in such small fragments. The author could not stay on the topic long enough to provide any more than tantalizing glimpses of that story.
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