Being More Human

I recently read “The Most Human Human: What Artificial Intelligence Teaches Us about Being Alive” by Brian Christian, a very interesting book recommended by a friend.  I learned some things about cognitive computing, but more importantly, it made me think about the unique values we bring as humans in the digital age.

Alan Turing, widely regarded as the father of artificial intelligence (and portrayed in the 2014 movie, “The Imitation Game”), postulated by 1990 a machine would be able to mimic the intelligence of a human so well that at least 30% of human judges could be convinced the machine was indeed a human. The Turing Test evaluates a machine/computer’s ability to “exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human” (Wikipedia).

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In 1991, the annual Loebner competition was created to determine which computer would be most humanlike as evaluated by a set of judges in a five minute chat. To create a control group, human “Confederates” would also be paired with the judges in chat sessions. Judges then would vote on whether the entity they were chatting with was human or machine. The machine receiving the most “human” votes would win the Loebner Prize.  The Confederate receiving the most “human” votes would be declared “The Most Human Human”.

The author of the book was selected to be a Confederate in the 2009 Loebner competition.  The book explores his preparation to distinguish himself as Most Human when compared to fellow Confederates and their computer competitors.

The overarching question is: “What makes humans unique?” and interestingly, we find that machines not only can do the things we do, but they can do many things better.  When we say World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen “plays like a computer”, we are complimenting the human that he is approaching the precision of a machine. 

But, being “like a computer” used to mean something different entirely…

In the infantile days of computer research and the development of algorithms, the best “computers” were not machines at all...they were humans (and usually women). In early code breaking attempts at Bletchley Park, the Allies employed small armies of human “Computers”. In fact, if a machine was found in some way to come close to the ability of a human, it was declared to be “almost as good as a Computer”.

How times have changed when the device in your pocket has magnitudes more computing power than the best mathematician! 

To be sure, one way to be more human is to make more mistakes, after all, "to err is human..." Machines in the Loebner competition often were programmed to make typos (or curse) to appear more human.  Conversely, Confederates with in-depth understanding of certain disciplines were commonly regarded by judges as too “booked up” to be real.

Next, the author delved into the philosophical differences between humans and machines.  Descartes famously said: “Cogito ergo sum”, translated, “I think therefore I am”.  A distinctive between humans and machines for decades has been in the ability to associate value in things, not just count them.  But, alas, we find today’s computers also are better at valuation than are we. One example is the systems used to evaluate the stock market. Today, only a foolish investor would put money behind a human analyst whose recommendations lacked solid computer data!

One remaining bastion where machines have not yet surpassed human ability is in the field of creative art.  While a machine can be built to render a copy of a work of art better than a human, building a machine with the genius to create (or learn to create) an original masterpiece which could stand up to professional scrutiny is a challenge we haven’t yet solved...and that is probably a good thing!

If the author asked me, I would say an area where humans continue to be "more human" than machines is in understanding and managing relationships. Indeed, people like you – reading this very blog – are an extension of my personal human network. Of course, some machines now are being taught to act as "virtual counselors".  These go far beyond the automated response lines we all have encountered; some are being used in suicide prevention lines (!) and are programmed to use methods a psychologist might employ in treatment of patients.  (Honestly, this gives me reason to doubt the Psychology profession more than it makes me believe computers are better at relationships than people are - although some of us are better at relationships than others!)

This article doesn’t give me the time to give you the full CliffsNotes summary of the book, and if you read it, some parts may resonate more with you than with me, so I would encourage you to do so.  You should look into whether a machine has successfully passed the Turing Test or not...and don’t use Google! (Because what if the machine is lying to you?)

In a time when everyone from our best trained analysts to fast food workers may soon be replaceable by machines, we would all do well to think of ways we truly are unique - and better.   

An interesting side note is that Hugh Loebner, the benefactor who funded the Loebner competition, previously had been victim of a scam, when for six months he had romantic correspondence with a Russian woman, who later was revealed to be…

A computer. Of the digital kind.