Brian Christian's book The Most Human Human, newly out in paperback, tells the story of how the author, "a young poet with degrees in computer science and philosophy," set out to win the "Most Human Human" prize in a Turing test weighing natural against artificial intelligence. Along the way, as he prepares to prove to a panel of judges (via an anonymous teletype interface) that he is not a machine, the book provides a sharply reasoned investigation into the nature of thinking. Are we setting ourselves up for failure by competing with machines in their analytical, logical areas of prowess rather than nurturing our own human strengths?
The Turing test attempts to discern whether computers are, to put it most simply, "like us" or "unlike us": humans have always been preoccupied with their place among the rest of creation. The development of the computer in the twentieth century may represent the first time that this place has changed.
The story of the Turing test, of the speculation and enthusiasm and unease over artificial intelligence in general, is, then, the story of our speculation and enthusiasm and unease over ourselves. What are our abilities? What are we good at? What makes us special? A look at the history of computing technology, then, is only half of the picture. The other half is the history of mankind's thoughts about itself.
[. . .]
Hemispheric Chauvinism: Computer and Creature
"The entire history of neurology and neuropsychology can be seen as a history of the investigation of the left hemisphere," says neurologist Oliver Sacks.
The neurologist V. S. Ramachandran echoes this sentiment:
"Unfortunately," he explains, "the mute right hemisphere can do nothing to protest."
Slightly to One Side
This odd focus on, and "dominance" of, the left hemisphere, says arts and education expert (and knight) Sir Ken Robinson, is evident in the hierarchy of subjects within virtually all of the world's education systems:
That side, of course, being the left.
The American school system "promotes a catastrophically narrow idea of intelligence and ability," says Robinson. If the left hemisphere, as Sacks puts it, is "like a computer tacked onto the basic creatural brain," then by identifying ourselves with the goings-on of the left hemisphere, by priding ourselves on it and "locating" ourselves in it, we start to regard ourselves, in a manner of speaking, as computers. By better educating the left hemisphere and better valuing and rewarding and nurturing its abilities, we've actually started becoming computers.
[. . .]
We are computer tacked onto creature, as Sacks puts it. And the point isn't to denigrate one, or the other, any more than a catamaran ought to become a canoe. The point isn't that we're half lifted out of beastliness by reason and can try to get even further through force of will. The tension is the point. Or, perhaps to put it better, the collaboration, the dialogue, the duet.
The word games Scattergories and Boggle are played differently but scored the same way. Players, each with a list of words they've come up with, compare lists and cross off every word that appears on more than one list. The player with the most words remaining on her sheet wins. I've always fancied this a rather cruel way of keeping score. Imagine a player who comes up with four words, and each of her four opponents only comes up with one of them. The round is a draw, but it hardly feels like one . . . As the line of human uniqueness pulls back ever more, we put the eggs of our identity into fewer and fewer baskets; then the computer comes along and takes that final basket, crosses off that final word. And we realize that uniqueness, per se, never had anything to do with it. The ramparts we built to keep other species and other mechanisms out also kept us in. In breaking down that last door, computers have let us out. And back into the light.
Who would have imagined that the computer's earliest achievements would be in the domain of logical analysis, a capacity held to be what made us most different from everything on the planet? That it could drive a car and guide a missile before it could ride a bike? That it could make plausible preludes in the style of Bach before it could make plausible small talk? That it could translate before it could paraphrase? That it could spin half-plausible postmodern theory essays before it could be shown a chair and say, as any toddler can, "chair"?
We forget what the impressive things are. Computers are reminding us.
I think the odd fetishization of analytical thinking, and the concomitant denigration of the creatural--that is, animal--and embodied aspect of life is something we'd do well to leave behind. Perhaps we are finally, in the beginnings of an age of AI, starting to be able to center ourselves again, after generations of living "slightly to one side."
Besides, we know, in our capitalist workforce and precapitalist-workforce education system, that specialization and differentiation are important. There are countless examples, but I think, for instance, of the 2005 book Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant, whose main idea is to avoid the bloody "red oceans" of strident competition and head for "blue oceans" of uncharted market territory. In a world of only humans and animals, biasing ourselves in favor of the left hemisphere might make some sense. But the arrival of computers on the scene changes that dramatically. The bluest waters aren't where they used to be.
Add to this that humans' contempt for "soulless" animals, their unwillingness to think of themselves as descended from their fellow "beasts," is now cut back on all kinds of fronts: growing secularism and empiricism, growing appreciation for the cognitive and behavioral abilities of organisms other than ourselves, and, not coincidentally, the entrance onto the scene of a being far more soulless than any common chimpanzee or bonobo--in this sense AI may even turn out to be a boon for animal rights.
Indeed, it's entirely possible that we've seen the high-water mark of the 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 truly does deal in pure abstraction, divorced from sensory reality, only this can snap us out of it. Only this can bring us, quite literally, back to our senses.
One of my graduate school advisers, poet Richard Kenney, describes poetry as "the mongrel art-speech on song," an art he likens to lichen: that organism which is actually not an organism at all but a cooperation between fungi and algae so common that the cooperation itself seemed a species. When, in 1867, the Swiss botanist Simon Schwendener first proposed the idea that lichen was in fact two organisms, Europe's leading lichenologists ridiculed him--including Finnish botanist William Nylander, who had taken to making allusions to "stultitia Schwendeneriana," fake botanist-Latin for "Schwendener the simpleton." Of course, Schwendener happened to be completely right. The lichen is an odd "species" to feel kinship with, but there's something fitting about it.
What appeals to me about this notion--the mongrel art, the lichen, the monkey and robot holding hands--is that it seems to describe the human condition too. Our very essence is a kind of mongrelism. It strikes me that some of the best and most human emotions come from this lichen state of computer/creature interface, the admixture, the estuary of desire and reason in a system aware enough to apprehend its own limits, and to push at them: curiosity, intrigue, enlightenment, wonder, awe.
Ramachandran: "One patient I saw--a neurologist from New York--suddenly at the age of sixty started experiencing epileptic seizures arising from his right temporal lobe. The seizures were alarming, of course, but to his amazement and delight he found himself becoming fascinated by poetry, for the first time in his life. In fact, he began thinking in verse, producing a voluminous outflow of rhyme. He said that such a poetic view gave him a new lease on life, a fresh start just when he was starting to feel a bit jaded."
Artificial intelligence may very well be such a seizure.
Excerpted from The Most Human Human by Brian Christian Copyright © 2011 by Brian Christian. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Very good article, very good. With technologies increasing role in the world around us, I have often thought that we will need to merge with machine to advance ourselves. To me, we were somewhat the dead weight attached to the machine, just there in a desperate attempt to live on.
The merging of man and machine will allow for us to help one another, not simply it helping us. Life shall be the soul, the creativity, the poetic force; machine shall be the reason, the mathematician, the logical drive. Together we shall be more than we could ever be alone.
While we still need to push for that left minded thinking, we really do need to raise up our right mindedness. I would almost say we should sacrifice a good deal of our focus on left minded teachings in the schools and bring in a much heavier focus on the arts. We would likely gain more by emphasizing creativity than we would by emphasizing pure numbers with our children and with ourselves.
I guess people have been saying this for ages, but it makes more sense now than ever. We need our living aspects to be as developed as they can be for that moment we eternally merge with the calculating machine.
Gee....A whole lotta words just to tell us you don't have a clue!
How so, baddogbob52?
It is an exploration of what it means to be human, or what it should mean. For many years and in many current cases, people are content to be a mix of right and left brain thinking. We live in a society that emphasizes the development of left brain thinking, which often neglects more right brain dominated thinking.
It is meant for us to look at ourselves and wonder, is it really worth neglecting right brain type thinking in the pursuit of left brain thinking? This is especially the case when you take into consideration how easily we can replicate most of our most desirable left brain type functions with computers and AI.
We might not be all the way there where we can just abandon the pursuit of a superior left brain, but maybe it is time we started to take into consideration the face that we also need to nurture the right side of the brain.
We lose nothing by striking a balance between the two sides, but we lose so much by abandoning the right side. We lose that creative and cultural spark that makes us different than a calculating machine. It is what will allow us to meld with the machine and have something to offer, to make the pairing more worthwhile.
One day, the machine will be our new left, we need to be sure we have a nice right to accompany it.
Excellent article, human society does place too much emphasis on 'logic and reason' and not enough on 'creative thinking'. As a creationist (seen as the spark/energy/plan of life - not as a machine factory), to me the individuality of mankind is obvious. As a creationist (evolution is part of the genius of intelligent design) the connectedness :) of man, plants and animals is just as obvious.
The development of AI provides an excellent basis for comparison and contrast between the human intelligence, creativity, spirituality created by God and the basic logic/reason/calculation manufactured by man.
The ability to ponder is unique to mankind and a wonderful creation in and of itself.
Love, Peace & Soul
Best written article I’ve read on here. Other authors take notes. I can tell its speaking to our right brain.
@nandrews73, couldn’t agree with you more.
“ As a creationist (evolution is part of the genius of intelligent design) the connectedness :) of man, plants and animals is just as obvious.” <--some one is using their right side :D
No part of Obama's brain makes him human--he has the egoistic brain of a tyrant and they are not human.
I think TRISHMAL would benefit greatly from exposure to Max Igan`s documentary "Trance-Formations".
Maybe He/She would then see the implications of a Human/Machine hybrid.
Very scary stuff indeed that individuals exist who would be willing to "merge" in this way.
Thank You for the link to "The Most Human Human". The review published here is very informative. Great site which I intend on visiting regularly.
Logic, mathematics, computational thinking is all about 'safety' in life.
Art, music, dance, being creative is our genius and the 'risk' side of us in life. This helps us to be adaptable to all of life’s changes.
We could be like the ants and be assigned a logical task in the group, but being human is also being independent, which brings for the need of adaptability, "RISK", our genius side to our brains, art, music, dance, being creative.
We are very much a product of our environment. So our parents push upon us as children in life and education, they feel will help us the most. Parents want their children to be safe in life. Our government also sets the school structure and are influence by business and their needs.
We are raised from our environment with such a strength pushed for safety in life and yes the arts, dance, music, creativity; "RISK" is less emphasized.
If you want to be happy and want your children to be happy, then you need to inspire being independence. And to inspire independence is to inspire the Arts and the willing to take "RISKS".
I believe Risk and Art are very much important as logic.
Oh we so admire those who do have artistic abilities in life and the talent to take risks!! When we are artistic we are free to be more adaptable to life itself.
Science sees no further than what it can sense, i.e. facts.
Religion sees beyond the senses, i.e. faith.
Open your mind and see!
Being free and independent is most human. Learn to be artistic and take risk. This leads to being free and more adaptable in life.
Else what are you left with? You are the ant; assign a logical job, safe in its need and repetition, leading a slow death to the grave.
Be free, be alive, learn an art and take risk too in your life! I believe it is the most human thing we can do!
Just to add, I think Albert Einstein found his passion and art form. Mathematics can be an art, but it is up to the individual to understand themselves and find their passion.
Science sees no further than what it can sense, i.e. facts.
Religion sees beyond the senses, i.e. faith.
Open your mind and see!
That video is very much born of ignorance, sorry. While the video has some valid points, a great deal of it is simply fear mongering and very terrible propaganda to support their own agenda.
I can understand where much of the video is coming from, I once felt that technology was not natural and something that gives no comfort to the "natural soul". What I failed to realize and what many others fail to realize, is that there is no difference between the singularity of the machine and the singularity we already live in. Machine is no different than I am, just like rock is no different than I.
We are all made of the same stuff, connected by the natural bonds of the universe. The technological singularity isn't so much a way to replace that, but more a way to make the perception of it more attainable. In a way, it is just us mimicking the world around us, creating a connected system that we can more fully experience than that which we are a part of already. The end result will simply be us evolving into everything...or nothing, your pick. We will work to evolve ourselves into something we already are and to me, that attempt is a thing of beauty.
Do not fear the machine, the machine and the society around it have nothing that can hurt you. You are eternal, just like what the machine and it's culture seek to make for itself.
Biochemical or technological, we are all machines. With cybernetic prostheses and neural implants becoming a reality as well as self assembling biochemical machines, the difference is quickly becoming academic. And on the horizon, quantum computing holds promise to truly bridge the AI gap.
For better or worse, the future will be....interesting.