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.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Four Way Interview - Jim Al-Khalili

Photo by Nick Smith Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology; and The World According to Physics. His latest book is The Joy of Science . Why joy?  While I focus more in the book on the process of science itself to gain knowledge about the world, I also wanted to get across the fact that science is so much more than hard facts and lessons in critical thinking.  Science helps us see the world more deeply, enriches us, enlightens us.  The closer we look, the more we can see and the more we can wonder. I feel

Wonderdog - Jules Howard *****

As Jules Howard acknowledges, there have been plenty of books about what makes a dog tick, whether they are training manuals, evolutionary examinations such as The Wolf Within or ethological studies of humans' closest animal partner such as If Dogs Could Talk . But most of Jules Howard's Wonderdog takes us into the roles that dogs have played in advancing science. Some of this material is fairly gruesome. We discover, for example, dogs' importance to medical research, particularly at a time when experimenting on animals had few ethical limits. What makes the book enjoyable is the way the Howard ties in his history with engaging stories - such as the brown dog statue, put up in Battersea in 1907 as a memorial to a dog horribly misused by vivisectionists, only for the statue to be destroyed by the council to bring an end to frequent attacks by infuriated medical students. (The statue has since been replaced.) Similarly, dogs have proved valuable in widening our understandin

Project Hail Mary - Andy Weir *****

‘Pretty much the perfect science fiction novel’ – that’s how I described Andy Weir’s first book, The Martian , when I reviewed it on this site a few years ago. But now that I’ve read this latest offering from him, I’ll have to revise my definition of perfection. Weir has simply excelled himself in every way. Project Hail Mary is even stronger on ‘real’ science than The Martian was, and its high-stakes plot is even more exciting and cleverly constructed. The book does, however, pose something of a problem for the reviewer. The way the story unfolds makes it extremely difficult to write a meaningful review that’s totally spoiler-free. Strictly speaking, I can’t even tell you its setting or the protagonist’s name, or the rationale behind the ‘project’ of the novel’s title, because they only emerge as the story progresses. But even the publisher gives these things away in their publicity material, so I will too. Rest assured there are plenty of twists and surprises that I won’t even hint