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.
Writers, philosophers, & scientists on what it means to be human:
“[The human is] markedly distinguished from all other living beings by his technical predisposition for manipulating things (mechanically joined with consciousness), by his pragmatic predisposition (to use other human beings skillfully for his purposes), and by the moral predisposition in his being (to treat himself and others according to the principle of freedom under the laws.)”
“Language and representation. We are the kind of creatures that ask those questions of ourselves. And we believe science can help answer. We’ve become creatures that think of ourselves as essentially biological — and I think we’re more than biological creatures. I’m not sure biology has answers.”
“To be a moral human being is to pay, be obliged to pay, certain kinds of attention … Perhaps the beginning of wisdom, and humility, is to acknowledge, and bow one’s head, before the thought, the devastating thought, of the simultaneity of everything, and the incapacity of our moral understanding — which is also the understanding of the novelist — to take this in.”
"It’s not 'what is human,' but what is unique: our extraordinary form of symbolic cognition.”
David Foster Wallace:
“Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of “generalization” of suffering. Does this make sense? We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy’s impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us imaginatively to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own. This is nourishing, redemptive; we become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.”
“Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being. If you operate, which most of us do, from the premise that there are things about the contemporary U.S. that make it distinctively hard to be a real human being, then maybe half of fiction’s job is to dramatize what it is that makes it tough. The other half is to dramatize the fact that we still 'are' human beings, now.”
Francis Collins, geneticist:
“What does the genome tell us? There’s surprisingly little genetic difference between human and chimpanzee. Yet clearly we’re different. There’s brain size and language. A language-related gene, FoxP2, evolved most rapidly in the last few million years. How did we develop empathy? Appreciate our mortality? And we should admit that there are areas that might not submit to material analysis: beauty, inspiration. We shouldn’t dismiss these as epiphenomenal froth.”
“Writing means sharing. It's part of the human condition to want to share things – thoughts, ideas, opinions.”
"The critical unique factor is language. Creativity. The religious and scientific impulse. And our social organization, which has developed to a prodigious degree. We have a record of history, moral behavior, economics, political and social institutions. We’re probably unique in our ability to investigate the future, imagine outcomes, and display images in our minds. I like to think of a generator of diversity in the frontal lobe—and those initials are G-O-D."