this is the most human human award

When people ask what the difference is between this blog and my newsletter, I usually say that this blog contains content either too mundane or too long for my newsletter. The latter seems to be composed more of material I actually want to communicate to people, rather than private musings made public. Both are writing exercises, but any act of communication gives more weight to the audience and the receiver, whereas, when I write on this blog, I allow myself the gratuitous indulgences of the trivial and long-winded, knowing that this space is primarily for me, and that whoever reads this is merely privy to the space, and not the person for whom this space exists. But I am finding increasingly that some of the content I write for the newsletters is material that I would like to keep on this blog too, where there is a chronological continuity by which I can track what I think and write. Now and then, I'll be posting excerpts from my newsletters here.

After I came home from watching Ex Machina last week (highly recommend), I began researching the Turing Test, which tests a computer’s ability to be indistinguishable from human intelligence. The annual Loebner Prize competition is the most famous public display of the Turing test, in which artificial intelligence programs (“chatbots”) compete for the “Most Human Computer Award.” Computer programs are paired with humans (“confederates”) for five-minute conversations, and the conversations are scrutinized by judges. If a computer can fool the judge at least 30% of the time, then the computer passes the Turing Test (note: many humans cannot pass the Turing Test). The test centers on the natural language abilities of participants, which is supposed to demonstrate one's intelligence—rational, emotional, aesthetic, and otherwise.

The more interesting part of the Loebner Prize, I discovered, is the “Most Human Human Award,” which is given to the human confederate who is most convincing as a human, according to the same criteria applied to the competing computers. It seems both farcical and ironic to me that a human being would be tested for his human-ness; this test begs the question of what it means to be human, how we create criteria for human-ness, and perhaps more alarmingly, how the definition of “human-ness” changes as technology advances. Writer Brian Christian, who won the Most Human Human Award in 2009, wrote a book about his experience as a confederate in the competition (read his excellent article on the same subject here) and asks this question: “How, in fact, do we be the most human we can be—not only under the constraints of the test, but in life?”

Though Christian is told “Just be yourself” as advice to win the Most Human Human Award, he spends months researching, training, and preparing to be “the most human.” He examines the history of the computer and our relationship to it, which is a strange one: the original computer was actually a human; computers were in fact job descriptions for women who performed calculations and numerical analyses at financial firms. A long time ago, digital computers sought to imitate human computers; now, when we encounter a genius or math whiz, we say that his or her brain is “like a computer.” Christian remarks, “It’s an odd twist: we’re like the thing that used to be like us. We imitate our old imitators, in one of the strange reversals in the long saga of human uniqueness.”

In his research, Christian brings up human characteristics that we used to consider unique, like the abilities to use language and tools or do math, that are no longer considered as such (because computers can too!). “Is it appropriate to allow our definition of our own uniqueness to be, in some sense, reactive to the advancing front of technology?” he asks. “And why is it that we are so compelled to feel unique in the first place?” What he means is: Are we less human because machines are becoming more human? Do we determine our human-ness based on the abilities and limitations of computers? Perhaps we humans are becoming more like machines, he suggests.

Christian ultimately finds that the questions the Turing test elicits are also the most central questions of being human: “How do we connect meaningfully with each other, as meaningfully as possible, within the limits of language and time? How does empathy work? What is the process by which someone enters into our life and comes to mean something to us?”

In thinking about this question of what constitutes human-ness, I’ve become convinced that the Turing test is limited and flawed not only because—as other critics have noted—some human behavior is unintelligent, and some intelligent behavior is human, but also because intelligence, and our verbal demonstration of it seems to be only one facet of our humanity. This may be obvious, but it's worth thinking about. Most of my days are consumed by judgments of my abilities and their resulting productivity, and much of this week has been spent criticizing my failures in language, writing, and communication. At the moment, I would probably fail the Turing Test if I had to take it. But when I think about what makes me human, I think not of my output but of my interior life and the complex terrain in me that is constantly seeking meaning, that yearns to connect and share with others the common experiences that make us feel less alien, less alone.

In reflecting on human-ness, I fixate on our capacity to feel pain, our inability to articulate our deepest suffering, the silent awe we experience in the face of overwhelming beauty, the complex and sometimes paradoxical interplay of emotions like jealous and love, confusion and certainty, sorrow and joy. We are human because we can bear the contradictions of this life and because we are not constant, not steady, not predictable. We change with time and effect. We surprise one another. As Hava Siegelmann once described intelligence as “a kind of sensitivity to things,” I see our sensitivities—and our reactivities—to barely detectable phenomena and nuances as crucial to “human-ness.” And also: our faith and our doubt, our search for meaning, our moral judgments, our conscience, our confrontation of the incomprehensible, our creation and imposition of narratives, our belief and our disbelief; the accumulation of wisdom over time; the way people imprint on us; the inexplicability of love and heartbreak.

See the newsletter in full here.


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