Skip to main content

The Most Human Human – Brian Christian ****

This is a brilliant concept well executed, if occasionally missing perfection due to a bit of pretentious twaddle. Of course I am well aware that one man’s pretentious twaddle is another person’s insightful and soul-searching philosophy, so you may appreciate Brian Christian’s musings, but I’d rather he stuck to the meat of the story.
And what a wonderful story it is. Firstly, don’t be put off by the subtitle, A Defence of Humanity in the Age of the Computer – this makes it sound like a Bill McKibben style moan about how it’s time to stop with the technology and get back to nature. This isn’t what it’s about at all. Christian’s central theme is the Turing test – Alan Turing’s idea of seeing how far computers have advanced by asking a human to judge whether there is a computer or a person on the other end of a text message. In particular, Christian introduces us to the Loebner Prize which annually pits the world’s best chatbots against human beings for judges to distinguish in a 5 minute chat.
The story of this challenge, in which Christian was a human subject for the 2009 session in Brighton threads through the book. As Christian looks at ways he might distinguish himself as a human being (hoping to win the prize given for the ‘most human human’, just as one of the bots gets ‘the most human computer’), he explores what human reasoning and thought is about in terms of the development of artificial intelligence and the impact of computers, and particularly pseudo-intelligent computers have on human beings.
The book works best when Christian is dealing with technology and its implications. I first came across a chatbot when ELIZA was installed on our Dec-10 at work in the late 70s and the whole idea of interacting with a computer in conversational speech is fascinating. Similarly, when it doesn’t get too deep into the chess itself, the section where he looks at chess computers and Deep Blue’s victory over Kasparov is also delightful.
Rather less successful are the sections where he spends rather too much time on philosophy and what can come across rather too easily as intellectual waffle. So we get statements like ‘Capitalism presents an interesting gray space, where societal prosperity is more than the occasional by-product of fierce competition: it’s the point of all that competition, from the society’s viewpoint.’ Yeh, right. I also found the author’s ‘bemused with British English, funny old Brits’ tone a little condescending.
Nevertheless, it’s easy enough to skip the worst of the philosophising, which is a relatively minor part of the book anyway, and there is plenty of excellent meat in there for anyone interested in AI, what it is to be human and how one informs the other. Recommended.
Hardback:  
Also in paperback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Also in audio download:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …