When IBM’s Watson trounced human representatives Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in Jeopardy, it felt like the final word on organic life’s quiz-show dominance. For a real test of machine-smarts, though, just grill Watson about its favorite episode of 30 Rock. That’s the idea behind Hugh Loebner’s annual Turing test, which pits chatterbots and humans against a panel of judges who attempt to suss out whether they’re having a real conversation or just feeding text into a word-parsing program. In his digressive but fascinating debut, The Most Human Human: What Talking With Computers Teaches Us About What It Means To Be Alive, Brian Christian takes the challenge hoping to come away with the title of “The Most Human Human,” which is awarded to the entrant who most successfully convinces the judges that they’re speaking with a living, thinking entity.
“Thinking” is a troublesome concept, and Christian takes great pleasure in plumbing the depths of his degrees in computer science, poetry, and philosophy to unravel just what it is that makes human thought unique—and why humans are so hung up on the concept of uniqueness in the first place. Less about The Loebner Prize than the larger question of how humans interact with each other, The Most Human Human comes off as a well-curated tour through Wikipedia that touches on a hundred topics without settling in for a concentrated explication of any one of them. A glancing account of the soul’s shifting locus across the ages transitions into a stub-like assessment of what it means when robots come for our jobs, followed by a smirking examination of The Mystery Method and how acquiring phone numbers intersects with Garry Kasparov’s chess loss to Deep Blue. Peppered in are transcripts from previous and current Loebner Prize chats, but it’s quickly apparent both that the contest itself was a bit of a bust and that Christian is at his most engaged and engaging when he’s trying to synthesize the data from six open browser windows at once.
Sometimes Christian’s wonkishness gets the better of him, and the book’s final third whips itself into an alienating nerd frenzy of unfocused theorizing, unnecessary anecdotes, and endless, enthusiastic parallel-drawing between lossy data compression and seemingly everything under the sun. A salvo of often-illuminating quotations and a way with metaphor keep this section from tanking entirely, but ideally, this would be the part of the book that’s outlining the big picture instead of looking for more ways to color outside the lines. After The Most Human Human’s incredibly engrossing first two-thirds, however, the anticlimax is almost necessary to put the brakes to all those whirring cerebral motors Christian set in motion.