Are computers changing what it means to be human?


First aired on Spark (5/4/11)

In 2009, Brian Christian competed as a "confederate" in the annual Loebner Prize competition for artificial intelligence (AI). In the Loebner Prize, human judges (often scientists) take part in a Turing test. After viewing text-based conversations with another contestant, the judges must determine whether the competitor was a human being or a computer. As a confederate, it was Christian's job to convince the scientists that he was, in fact, a real person. It's harder than you think. One year, a Shakespearean expert was deemed to be a computer because "no one could possibly know that much about Shakespeare."

This experience got Christian thinking. For centuries, philosophers from Aristotle and Plato to Descartes and Hume used humanity's cognitive abilities to demonstrate superiority over animals. But now, with something out there that is better at math, logical thinking and recalling facts, how can cognitive function be what makes us special? What makes us human? "We develop [artificial intelligence] which is a benchmark of technology, but it actually also becomes a way of measuring ourselves," Christian explained to Spark host Nora Young in a recent interview. "What is it that makes a human conversation sort of imitable or what is it that makes it distinctive and hard to replicate?"

These questions formed the basis for Christian's book, The Most Human Human. Meticulously researched and accessibly written, The Most Human Human postulates that it isn't what separates us from animals that makes us human -- it's what connects us to them. "If you look at Descartes and Plato, they spend pages and pages and pages trying to conclusively prove that humans have souls and animals have nada," Christian said. "With the hindsight of what we know about technology, we can look at that and say that was a mistake. As we learn more about animals we are starting to learn that even though they don't have language and don't think logically, they have pretty accomplished cognitive skills."

However, Descartes and his fellow philosophers can rest easy knowing the other essential factor in Christian's modern definition of "human": lived experience. Computers can know as many facts and solve as many puzzles as we can program them to do, but they will never be able to explain why they recognize their friends as friends or feel raindrops and instinctively know to open an umbrella. In fact, these basic tasks have been nearly impossible for scientists to replicate in artificial intelligence. "It was precisely these types of intuitive things that turned out to be huge roadblocks for AI," Christan explained. "We're discovering that there's actually unsung complexity to a lot of what we take for granted in everyday life."

And for Christian, this is what makes us most human.

Human HumanThe Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive

Brian Christian

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"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'..."


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