A heady exploration of the intersection of artificial intelligence (AI) and human nature.
Each year, the Loebner Prize competition tests the continuing evolution of AI. Based on the Turing Test, named for British computer pioneer Alan Turing, the contest pits AI programs against people in an electronic conversation designed to determine whether computers can “think.” While no machine has ever fooled the judges into thinking it was human, the event recognizes both the “most human” computer and the “most human” human. Intrigued by the latter expression, Christian decided to investigate its meaning. He participated in the 2009 Loebner competition and interviewed philosophers, computer scientists and others to write this debut book about the ways in which computers are reshaping our sense of self. The author begins by asking a few questions: What are humans’ abilities? What are we good at? What makes us special? Since Aristotle, writes the author, the answer has been that only humans can reason. Yet the computer’s earliest achievement fell into the domain of logical analysis. So where does that leave humans? Since the 1997 AI showdown in which supercomputer Deep Blue won a chess match against world champion Garry Kasparov, humans have felt “an uneasy and shifting relationship” between AI and our sense of self. Christian’s occasionally rambling examination of the way machines are forcing us to appreciate what it means to be human leads him to explore everything from poetry, chess and existentialism to the state of “flow,” in which we become completely immersed in unself-conscious activity. Along the way, the author offers an overview of the history of AI, including the development at MIT of the first conversational computer programs in the mid ’60s and the inner workings of chess computers, which store huge amounts of data on possible chess positions. With AI chat bots now finding commercial uses—an airline website invited the author to chat with “Jinn” instead of calling their customer-service line—we more frequently encounter AI in daily life. “Maybe it’s not until we experience machines that we appreciate the human,” writes Christian.
Mainly for computer-savvy readers.