Emotions, inspiration, and what it means to be human: an interview with Brian Christian

Brian Christian, bestselling author of The Most Human Human

I’m going to do something amazing today. I’m going to tell you what it means to be human. Well, actually, Brian Christian, author of the bestselling book The Most Human Human, is going to tell you what it means to be human. (I have previously written about his work, here).

Christian recently passed through Berkeley as part of his nationwide book tour. In between answering his fans’ questions about consciousness, creativity, and robotic dating, he took a few minutes to sit down with me and explain why he’s so interested in studying the distinguishing characteristics of humans and machines.

Christian’s book, in part, describes his experience as a participant in last year’s Turing Test, an annual competition in which man and machine vie for the title of “The Most Human”. In the competition, a panel of (human) judges engage in short electronic conversations with a hidden responder, either a fellow human or a computer “chatbot”. At the end of the conversation, the judges are asked to decide whether the person they were talking to was a human or a chatbot, and the winner is the responder who earns the most “human” votes.

Now you might be thinking “what a silly contest – of course human beings are the most human.”  If this thought crossed your mind ten years ago, you’d be absolutely right. However, this intuitive reaction may not ring true for much longer. Chatbots have become increasingly adept at fooling human judges, and in 2009, one program fell just shy of winning the competition.

That brings us to Christian’s desire to participate in the Turing test. Being the champion of human nature that he is, Christian heard of the close call and decided to take action by entering himself into the competition. In his words: “I wanted to know how I could get involved on behalf of humanity.”

Christian’s academic background made him a uniquely qualified competitor in the Turing Test. He holds degrees in Philosophy and Computer Science and at one point worked in a computational psychology laboratory. While these fields might appear to share little in common, Christian finds them “relevant in ways that don’t seem expected. Computer science and philosophy are… both about cognition, but they’re both about rigor.  Breaking things down to an atomic level.”

His experience with both computer programming and human psychology has led him to notice the many similarities that exist between the two fields. “It is not a question of silicon vs. cells, it’s a question of the type of thinking.” In his book, he provides evidence for this claim by describing an experiment in which computer programs were set up to remotely interact with unwitting human users over the Internet. The results included a teenage girl that would talk for hours with a chatbot, as well as a man that fell in love with an AI woman.

Christian points out that the roles can be reversed, too.  “Think of call operators – if you have to follow this very rigid set of rules, then you are essentially taking a fluid human intelligence and cramming it into the framework of a chatbot.”

Nao, a humanoid robot, takes a break after a RoboCup soccer match

According to Christian, the growing similarities between humans and computers have led some people to revisit the definition of what makes us human. “Emotion is a little bit nearer and dearer to us in terms of how we perceive ourselves than it used to be,” says Christian, drawing a contrast with the earlier perception that humans were the pinnacle of logical ability.  “It’s funny that we interact with computers so much that we’re [now] more inclined to celebrate those animal-like qualities.”

Christian has noticed his own changing views on the subject, saying “as a kid I strove to be hyper rational, and I don’t necessarily do that right now.”

Although some emotions may be replicated by machines in the future, Christian does believe in a few human qualities that will remain safe in the long run. “When I think of uniquely human emotions, one of them is curiosity” he says. “It seems like [curiosity is] right on this line where desire and will meet knowledge. I think wonder and awe are also situated in that middle space.”

Above all, Christian says, “the most human act is contemplation. For me, the most important thing is to investigate the stuff that interests you and to articulate those thoughts.”


For more of Christian’s work, check out his article in the Atlantic and his recent appearance on RadioLab.  You should also buy his book.  It’s excellent!