Skip to main content

The Most Human Human – Brian Christian ****

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.
Hardback:  
Also in paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Also in audio download:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…