Blurring the line between man and machine

Human beings are a wonderful species, indeed. We’ve got the ability to think critically in difficult situations, to be flexible in the face of great adversity and challenge, and to create systems that were previously unthinkable. Our brains seem to be nature’s ultimate machine, a unique network of neurons in a storm of electrical activity. This fantastic assemblage of complex components has been the sole occupant of the throne of “consciousness” (whatever that is) for thousands of years now. However, our tenure as the known universe’s only sentient beings may be coming to an end.

This concept was recently discussed in an article in The Atlantic. Written by Brian Christian, a bona-fide flesh-and-blood human (honest), it covers one of the oldest questions facing humanity: what makes us special? Christian describes his experience in 2009 as a contestant in the famed “Turing test“, in which computer programs attempt to fool judges into believing that they’re conversing with an actual person, rather than a machine. The annual competition is a gathering place for AI enthusiasts and critics alike, where the intricacies of modern machines are pitted against the “unique” human mind. The result is an eerie battleground where the lines between silicon and carbon are blurred.

Christian's book on his encounter with the Turing test

While we are still a far cry from creating computers that are truly indistinguishable from people, the race is a heated one.  Each year brings with it a new host of artificial intelligence that is more flexible, more sophisticated, and more human than previous iterations. This allows us to dive deeper into the world of machines, better understanding their capabilities and limitations. These Turing tests also give us a refined glimpse into what it means to be a human. In fact, Christian aims for a different goal than beating out the machines: he competes for (and ultimately wins) the award of “the most human human.”

What should we take from the fact that such an award even exists? Is it that technology has somehow “watered down” the pool of consciousness for some of us? Have the poignant sensations of being human become dulled after many hours in front of glowing screens and status updates? Or is it that machines are simply running a faster race than we are, zeroing in on some level of sentient perfection unhindered by the slow deliberateness of natural evolution?

Computers are becoming increasingly sophisticated, humanity’s daily interaction with machines is constantly growing, and our interactions with one another seem to become defined more and more by our digital avatars rather than our flesh-and-blood selves. In such a world, it becomes difficult to predict the ramifications of advanced technology and our increasing reliance on it for work, entertainment, and sustenance. To illuminate the darkness of what it means to be human, we will have to follow the path of Brian Christian and utilize one of the most powerful and under-appreciated tools at our disposal: introspection.