the most human human
“…the story of Homo sapiens trying to stake a claim on shifting ground, flanked on both sides by beast and machine, pinned between meat and math.” (p.13)
No typo in the title, this is truly how this book by Brian Christian is called. It was kindly sent to me by my friends from BUY and I realised I could still write with my right hand when commenting on the margin. (I also found the most marvellous proof to a major theorem but the margin was just too small…) “The most human human: What artificial intelligence teaches us about being alive” is about the Turing test, designed to test whether an unknown interlocutor is a human or a machine. And eventually doomed to fail.
“The final test, for me, was to give the most uniquely human performance I could in Brighton, to attempt a successful defense against the machines.” (p.15)
What I had not realised earlier is that there is a competition every year running this test against a few AIs and a small group of humans, the judges (blindly) giving votes for each entity and selecting as a result the most human computer. And also the most human … human! This competition is called the Loebner Prize and it was taking place in Brighton, this most English of English seaside towns, in 2008 when Brian Christian took part in it (as a human, obviously!).
“Though both [sides] have made progress, the `algorithmic’ side of the field [of computer science] has, from Turing on, completely dominated the more `statistical’ side. That is, until recently.” (p.65)
I enjoyed the book, much more for the questions it brought out than for the answers it proposed, as the latter sounded unnecessarily conflictual to me, i.e. adopting a “us vs.’em” posture and whining about humanity not fighting hard enough to keep ahead of AIs… I dislike this idea of the AIs being the ennemy and of “humanity lost” the year AIs would fool the judges. While I enjoy the sci’ fi’ literature where this antagonism is exacerbated, from Blade Runner to Hyperion, to Neuromancer, I do not extrapolate those fantasised settings to the real world. For one thing, AIs are designed by humans, so having them winning this test (or winning against chess grand-masters) is a celebration of the human spirit, not a defeat! For another thing, we are talking about a fairly limited aspect of “humanity”, namely the ability to sustain a limited discussion with a set of judges on a restricted number of topics. I would be more worried if a humanoid robot managed to fool me by chatting with me for a whole transatlantic flight. For yet another thing, I do not see how this could reflect on the human race as a whole and indicate that it is regressing in any way. At most, it shows the judges were not trying hard enough (the questions reported in The most human human were not that exciting!) and maybe the human competitors had not intended to be perceived as humans.
“Does this suggest, I wonder, that entropy may be fractal?” (p.239)
Another issue that irked me in the author’s perspective is that he trained and elaborated a complex strategy to win the prize (sorry for the mini-spoiler: in case you did not know, Brian did finish as the most human human). I do not know if this
worry fear to appear less human than an AI was genuine or if it provided a convenient canvas for writing the book around the philosophical question of what makes us human(s). But it mostly highlights the artificial nature of the test, namely that one has to think in advance on the way conversations will be conducted, rather than engage into a genuine conversation with a stranger. This deserves the least human human label, in retrospect!
“So even if you’ve never heard of [Shanon entropy] beofre, something in your head intuits [it] every time you open your mouth.” (p.232)
The book spend a large amount of text/time on the victory of Deep Blue over Gary Kasparov (or, rather, on the defeat of Kasparov against Deep Blue), bemoaning the fact as the end of a golden age. I do not see the problem (and preferred the approach of Nate Silver‘s). The design of the Deep Blue software was a monument to the human mind, the victory did not diminish Kasparov who remains one of the greatest chess players ever, and I am not aware it changed chess playing (except when some players started cheating with the help of hidden computers!). The fact that players started learning more and more chess openings was a trend much before this competition. As noted in The most human human, checkers had to change its rules once a complete analysis of the game had led to a status-quo in the games. And this was before the computer era. In Glasgow, Scotland, in 1863. Just to draw another comparison: I like playing Sudoku and the fact that I designed a poor R code to solve Sudokus does not prevent me from playing, while my playing sometimes leads to improving the R code. The game of go could have been mentioned as well, since it proves harder to solve by AIs. But there is no reason this should not happen in a more or less near future…
“…we are ordering appetizers and saying something about Wikipedia, something about Thomas Bayes, something about vegetarian dining…” (p.266)
While the author produces an interesting range of arguments about language, intelligence, humanity, he missed a part about the statistical modelling of languages, apart from a very brief mention of a Markov dependence. Which would have related to the AIs perspective. The overall flow is nice but somehow meandering and lacking in substance. Esp. in the last chapters. On a minor level, I also find that there are too many quotes from Hofstadter’ Gödel, Escher and Bach, as well as references to pop culture. I was surprised to find Thomas Bayes mentioned in the above quote, as it did not appear earlier, except in a back-note.
“A girl on the stairs listen to her father / Beat up her mother” C.D. Wright, Tours
As a side note to Andrew, there was no mention made of Alan Turing’s chess rules in the book, even though both Turing and chess were central themes. I actually wondered if a Turing test could apply to AIs playing Turing’s chess: they would have to be carried by a small enough computer so that the robot could run around the house in a reasonable time. (I do not think chess-boxing should be considered in this case!)