In the early 1950s, the World War 2 code breaker and father of the computer, Alan Turing devised a test to determine whether we could tell the difference between humans and machines. The way it would work is this: a person would have two remote conversations-one would be with a person; the other with a computer. Then she would decide who was who (or was what). Turing guessed that by the year 2000, there would be a computer sophisticated enough to pull the wool over our eyes.
In 2009, author Brian Christian signed up as one of the human entities in the Turing Test. Not only did he want to convince the judges he was a person, he wanted to be the “best” at it-he wanted every judge to guess that he was human. In doing so he would win a prize-The Most Human Human.
But as he started to prepare for this contest, it started to occur to him: what makes a human? What, besides the obvious biological differences, actually separates us from the machines. The famous thinkers familiar to every hungover freshman in Philosophy 101 devoted pages trying to explain what separated humans from animals. Yet, as we learned more about chimps, those differences became fewer and fewer. Now, we might be facing the same issue with our computers. They can play chess, (like us) date online, (like us) do math, (better than us) and bitch about the Clinton’s (according to my Facebook feed, that is very popular here in Texas).
This book started strong. And despite Christian’s best efforts, the theories in the book remained interesting. But man, this book was a tough slog, with ankle-deep philosophizing peppered with self-indulgent digressions. As a reader, I grew pretty weary of his childhood memories. There’s a couple of sections where I’m pretty sure he actually doesn’t know anything about what he’s talking about (like how tv sitcoms get made).
Even when this book was wrong, it did make me think. Artificial intelligence isn’t going away, and the line between humans and machines is going to get more and more narrow. Unfortunately for Christian, the week before I read this book, I listened to a Radiolab podcast about A.I. titled “Talking To Machines.”
Listen to that instead.