Most Human Award

The March issue’s cover story in The Atlantic by Brian Christian is an exploration of the relationship between man and machine, and not just any machine, but rather thinking machines, robots. James Bennet introduces the issue in the editor’s note :

“What a piece of work is a man,” Hamlet—who knew a piece of work when he saw one—observed. “How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!” The last century’s experience left us with a less exalted sense of ourselves not only because other entities turned out to share some of our powers, but also because we often didn’t act much like angels when we applied those powers, including new ones supplied by technology. Could computers move us closer to Hamlet’s vision of our potential? Christian argues that the contest with computers will compel us to hone those qualities of our intelligence that do distinguish us: our suppleness and sensitivity, our creativity and wit. And according to Schmidt, an alliance with computers (Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, has speculated that within 10 years, implanted devices might communicate directly with our brains) will free us from rote memorization and other menial tasks.

Free us to do what, is I suppose the underlying question—to play Angry Birds or learn another language; to act like angels, or not at all like them. The choice is still going to be ours. For a reasonably long time, at least.

Brian Christian participates in the 2009 Turing Test as a confederate or human subject. His goal is to be as human as possible, assuring the judges that his conversing could only be human.

The thought of going head-to-head (head-to-motherboard?) against some of the world’s top AI programs filled me with a romantic notion that, as a confederate, I would be defending the human race, à la Garry Kasparov’s chess match against Deep Blue.

The computer program receiving the most votes and highest ranking from the judges (regardless of whether it passes the Turing Test by fooling 30 percent of them) is awarded the title of the Most Human Computer. It is this title that the research teams are all gunning for, the one with the cash prize (usually $3,000), the one with which most everyone involved in the contest is principally concerned. But there is also, intriguingly, another title, one given to the confederate who is most convincing: the Most Human Human award.

But what does it mean to be human? Here Christian discovers that what makes a human and what makes a computer are the two sides of the same question (coin). A ‘computer’ used to be a job, for a human, but now it is a machine and a nickname for one who is quick witted or good at math.

Of course, in the decades that followed, we know that the quotation marks migrated, and now it is “digital computer” that is not only the default term, but the literal one. In the mid-20th century, a piece of cutting-edge mathematical gadgetry was said to be “like a computer.” In the 21st century, it is the human math whiz who is “like a computer.” It’s an odd twist: we’re like the thing that used to be like us. We imitate our old imitators, in one of the strange reversals in the long saga of human uniqueness.

Christian’s conclusion, for lack of a better word:

Indeed, it’s entirely possible that we’ve seen the high-water mark of our left-hemisphere bias. I think the return of a more balanced view of the brain and mind—and of human identity—is a good thing, one that brings with it a changing perspective on the sophistication of various tasks.

It’s my belief that only experiencing and understanding truly disembodied cognition—only seeing the coldness and deadness and disconnectedness of something that really does deal in pure abstraction, divorced from sensory reality—can snap us out of it. Only this can bring us, quite literally, back to our senses.


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