Photograph by Michael Langan.
Brian Christian, who studied computer science, philosophy, and poetry, has just published his first book, The Most Human Human: What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means to Be Alive. Recently, he answered my questions about the Turing test, online romance, and conversation fillers.
Your new book has an odd but intriguing title: The Most Human Human. Can you explain what it means?
The Most Human Human is an award given out each year at the Loebner Prize, the artificial intelligence (AI) community’s most controversial and anticipated annual competition. The event is what’s called a Turing test, in which a panel of judges conducts a series of five-minute-long chat conversations over a computer with a series of real people and with a series of computer programs pretending to be people by mimicking human responses. The catch, of course, is that the judges don’t know at the start who’s who, and it’s their job in five minutes of conversation to try to find out.
Each year, the program that does the best job of persuading the judges that it’s human wins the Most Human Computer award and a small research grant for its programmers. But there’s also an award, strangely enough, for the human who does the best job of swaying the judges: the Most Human Human award.
British mathematician Alan Turing famously predicted in 1950 that computers would be passing the Turing test—that is, consistently fooling judges at least 30 percent of the time and as a result, generally considered to be intelligent in the human sense—by the year 2000. This prediction didn’t come to pass, but I was riveted to read that, in 2008, the computers came up shy of that mark by just a single vote. I decided to call up the test’s organizers and get involved in the 2009 contest as one of the human “confederates”—which meant I was both a part of the human “defense,” trying to prevent the machines from passing the test, and also vying with my fellow confederates for that intriguing Most Human Human award. The book tells the story of my attempt to prepare, as well as I could, for that role: What exactly does it mean to “act as human as possible” in a Turing test? And what does it mean in life?