Let's Talk About Us
Not Your Average Book About Trying to Be a Better Conversationalist Than a Computer Program
Every year, computer scientists gather for a Turing test, in which judges ask questions via instant messaging to a group of subjects who are secured anonymously at another location. Some of the subjects are real people, and others are artificial intelligence programs. The intent is to trick the judges into believing the AI is a real human (or that the real humans are AI programs), and though that milestone has not yet been reached, the program that does the most convincing job is annually awarded the Most Human Computer Award, and the human who convinces the most judges of their humanity is named the Most Human Human.
Seattleite Brian Christian, a poet and a computer science major, took part in the Turing test as a human subject in 2009, and his new-in-paperback book The Most Human Human (Anchor Books, $15) is an account of how he prepared for the test. Rather than framing the book in a cloying "My-Year-of" format (My Year of Learning How Not to Talk Like a Chatbot, perhaps?), Christian collects all the various branches of his study into thematic chapters and uses the book as an excuse to embark on a rambling investigation into what makes us human and how we convince other people of our humanness every day.
His sources vary from George Orwell to linguistic texts; chess theory; philosophy; Neil Strauss's unctuous memoir about learning how to pick up women, The Game; and Douglas Hofstadter's unclassifiable mathematical/philosophical romp Gödel, Escher, Bach. While Christian isn't quite as playful as Hofstadter, in form and content Human shares an excitable intellectual voraciousness with Gödel, mashing everything together into an array of facts that may not lead to any single point but makes for an endlessly interesting journey.
Every page provides a fact that offers a path on which the reader can wander for an hour or two. In Christian's digressive style, we learn about a man—the world's first official cyborg, actually—who installed a sixth sense in himself, a kind of sonar that at first would make his finger twinge when a large object approached, but which eventually simply became incorporated into his repertoire of senses. He offers a brief tutorial on where humans have believed the soul is located throughout history (head, heart, liver) to a plainspoken explanation of what makes My Dinner with Andre work, when really—since it's just two people eating dinner—it should be the most boring thing ever put to film.
The book leads up to the results of Christian's participation in the Turing test, which ultimately feels like an anticlimax—but that's okay. (I would have appreciated seeing Christian's entire five-minute IM chat with a judge as an appendix to the book.) Appropriately enough for a book about an explanation of human conversation, Human's meandering offers readers opportunities to launch into their own inner monologues, transcending a facile explanation of conversations to ultimately become a kind of conversation of its own.