This is a brilliant concept well executed, if occasionally missing perfection due to a bit of pretentious twaddle. Of course I am well aware that one man’s pretentious twaddle is another person’s insightful and soul-searching philosophy, so you may appreciate Brian Christian’s musings, but I’d rather he stuck to the meat of the story.
And what a wonderful story it is. Firstly, don’t be put off by the subtitle, A Defence of Humanity in the Age of the Computer – this makes it sound like a Bill McKibben style moan about how it’s time to stop with the technology and get back to nature. This isn’t what it’s about at all. Christian’s central theme is the Turing test – Alan Turing’s idea of seeing how far computers have advanced by asking a human to judge whether there is a computer or a person on the other end of a text message. In particular, Christian introduces us to the Loebner Prize which annually pits the world’s best chatbots against human beings for judges to distinguish in a 5 minute chat.
The story of this challenge, in which Christian was a human subject for the 2009 session in Brighton threads through the book. As Christian looks at ways he might distinguish himself as a human being (hoping to win the prize given for the ‘most human human’, just as one of the bots gets ‘the most human computer’), he explores what human reasoning and thought is about in terms of the development of artificial intelligence and the impact of computers, and particularly pseudo-intelligent computers have on human beings.
The book works best when Christian is dealing with technology and its implications. I first came across a chatbot when ELIZA was installed on our Dec-10 at work in the late 70s and the whole idea of interacting with a computer in conversational speech is fascinating. Similarly, when it doesn’t get too deep into the chess itself, the section where he looks at chess computers and Deep Blue’s victory over Kasparov is also delightful.
Rather less successful are the sections where he spends rather too much time on philosophy and what can come across rather too easily as intellectual waffle. So we get statements like ‘Capitalism presents an interesting gray space, where societal prosperity is more than the occasional by-product of fierce competition: it’s the point of all that competition, from the society’s viewpoint.’ Yeh, right. I also found the author’s ‘bemused with British English, funny old Brits’ tone a little condescending.
Nevertheless, it’s easy enough to skip the worst of the philosophising, which is a relatively minor part of the book anyway, and there is plenty of excellent meat in there for anyone interested in AI, what it is to be human and how one informs the other. Recommended.