The Most Human Human
I recently read a non-fiction book called “The Most Human Human,” which, (as you have probably noticed by now), is the subject of this review. If you have read even a few of my previous posts, most likely you won’t be surprised that this title alone sparked my interest. What does it mean to be the most human human? Isn’t being human enough to make me human (at least as human as that other human passing on the street)? The essential qualities or capacities that underlie our shared humanity and give us common ground with one another is a topic that I find endlessly fascinating and pressingly important. It is also something I have touched on a lot in my writing (see for example Becoming Human, Dignity and Dependence, and the entire Person to Person series). An attentive reader might say I am thoughtfully exploring these issues (and a less generous estimation might use the word “obsessed”).
Yet I hope in this review I can convince you that it is important for us to be aware of what makes us human, and that this is no small or trivial question. Brian Christian, the author of “The Most Human Human,” is certainly of the same mind. Although Christian branches off in many different directions throughout the book, the central narrative revolves around his participation in a competition inspired by the Turing Test. What is the Turing Test exactly? Perhaps you are familiar with the recent film, “The Imitation Game,” which takes place during the Second World War and stars the brilliant Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing. Turing was a computer scientist (among other things) and proposed a test for determining human intelligence. If a computer could be judged as a human through an online conversation, then it passes the test. As a human confederate at a competition of this nature, Brian Christian chatted online with judges who would also converse with computer programs and then decide which of their interlocutors were human. The computer and human labelled most frequently as humans are called, respectively, “The Most Human Computer” and “The Most Human Human.”
Before arriving at the competition, Christian embarks on a quest to find out what it is that really defines our humanity and distinguishes our intelligence from the artificial intelligence of machines. What follows is a thoughtful and far-reaching discussion of who we are and how we can prevent ourselves from losing this human essence.
How is it possible to lose our humanity when we are born human and will always be humans, so long as we live? I think this loss has to do with our ability to connect in a human way with other humans, and with our ability to recognize the beautiful gifts of our humanity which we have been given by virtue of our birth. Should we be threatened by the rapidly increasing efficiency and skillset of the computer and other digital technologies? Perhaps it is a viable fear to hold that computers will usurp our position on the Human Throne (or even that robots will suddenly rise up and defeat us in some epic, apocalyptic, science fiction scenario). Yet I think there is a different fear and problem here that we often overlook. Computers may have gained (and are still gaining) capacities also possessed by humans, yes. But this process can also work the other way around. The greater fear, in my mind, is that we are becoming more like computers and making less use of what is distinctly human within us (that which can never be replicated by a computer).
Christian looks at a number of these distinctly human qualities in great depth, providing actual transcriptions from past Turing tests of conversation from both humans and computers. I will admit, some of the information on computers and programming was rather technical, but it was well worth any difficulty, and the connections Christian was able to draw were surprising and insightful. One of the main themes he looked at was creativity. As humans, we have the capacity for creativity, not just to memorize and regurgitate information but to innovate, to act and react in new and unpredictable ways. Indeed, I have argued elsewhere that we are all creative beings, necessarily, as a result of our share in the creation process that brought us into being. But is it possible for us to lose awareness of our own creativity or to cease to exercise this creativity in favour of maximized efficiency and productivity? I would say that it is not only possible but prevalent today, in a society where contemplation and creativity are both looked down upon as lacking some clear-cut use or purpose. However, when we abandon creativity, it does not affect merely the ability to make and experience art, but the ability to have good conversation, and to form and maintain meaningful relationships. We become closer to machines than to humans, acting in the way we ought but not in the way we really are.
Conversation is another key theme on which Christian focuses, emphasizing the importance of memory and consistency in “human” conversations. I am about to begin reading another non-fiction book on a similar topic: “Reclaiming Conversation” by psychologist Sherry Turkle. This book comes to me with excellent recommendations and if you are at all interested I would encourage you to join me in reading it (and hopefully in reading my review once I have finished the book and have written it). In a time when conversations are fragmented more often than not by the unearthly glow of a cell phone screen, finding and recognizing authentic connection is more important than ever.
What does it mean to be human? The answer is not simple and could not be reduced to just a few words, but I think it matters more than a little that we search for this essence of humanity. It matters that we want to find out.