It’s the Part I Was Born To Play!

I listened to a neat interview with Brian Christian on the Monocle Weekly podcast last week (it’s edition 98, if you wanna download it). The lead interviewer, host Tyler Brule, admitted that he hadn’t read Mr. Christian’s new book, The Most Human Human (subtitled, “What Talking with Computers Teaches Us About What It Means To Be Alive”), so some of his questions were a little off-topic or perhaps naive. But Mr. Christian gave the impression that he’s used to having to carry the conversation about his chosen topic, and did so wonderfully (to my ears).

The premise of the book (and here’s a good review of it) is that our interactions with computers may help us learn more about what it means to be human.

One of the interesting points in the Monocle interview was that, while computers have grown ever more advanced and nearly won a Turing contest a few years ago, humans are veritably regressing to a less nuanced, less sensual world. That is, while they’re becoming more human, we’re becoming more computer-like. It’s a theme I’ve pondered for many years (including, probably, on this blog, but I’m too lazy to look it up). As Mr. Christian put it in the interview (transcription by me, with a little editing):

The computer represents simultaneously a chance to achieve the next enlightenment about what the human condition is all about, as well as a threat to that very condition. That to me is one of the great ironies. For example, if you look back over the history of philosophy, there’s been this ancient question: what is it that makes the human being different, special and unique?

Typically, philosophers, starting from Aristotle and Plato and on to Descartes have begun by trying to contrast human beings with animals. To differentiate humans from animals, you have to write the body out of the equation. Right from the start, philosophers zeroed in on the most abstract aspects of cognition, things like algebra and symbolic logic.

I think one of the great surprises for that line of thinking is that the development of the computer in the 20th century represented an intrusion into precisely those areas that were considered to be the unique hallmarks of human intelligence. What we’re finding is that a lot of what we considered to be the embodied, sensory, in-the-world experience actually represents a greater degree of cognitive and computational sophistication.

But one of the great ironies is that we’re now living in the world in a more disembodied way. Instead of actually going somewhere, we just go onto the internet and remotely interact with somebody who’s far away. To an observer from space, most jobs — regardless of what it is your job entails — would look the same: sitting at your laptop for 8 hours. Maybe you’re an architect, maybe you’re a lawyer, maybe you’re a journalist, but the experience has become almost totally disembodied.

Earlier in the conversation, he notes:

One of the strange things about the development of AI is that it’s sort of like biological evolution running backwards. Computers proved themselves capable of what we think of as being high-level tasks, like multivariable calculus and grandmaster chess, but they’re still trying to get their hooks into things like recognizing a face or understanding an ambiguity in a sentence.

I think it points out the unsung and not very celebrated complexity of life. It turns out that a lot of these tasks, precisely the things we take for granted, are many of the things that have proven the most difficult and most complicated for programmers to try to simulate.

In the interview, Mr. Christian doesn’t get at the notion that computers also don’t ask, “Why?”, which I think is a big deal, but I bet that comes up in the book at some point. Still, it’s a great leaping-off point, to explore how the heavy-duty, advanced, abstract thought isn’t exactly what “makes us human.” To Mr. Christian, who played the part of the human in a Turing Test competition in 2009 (hence the title of this post), graceful language remains the key to us.

In the Monocle interview, he talked about one of the ways in which our technology actually seems to lessen us:

Why are people talking in such a flat, emotionless way? Part of it is that so much of communication in modern life is happening through a technological medium. This takes the form of everything from e-mail and text messages and even cellphones. Compared to a landline, which has a vocal lag of 1/10th of a second, a cellphone has six times as long of a lag, 6/10ths of a second. By the time you’ve said something and the other person’s reacted, it’s going to be a minimum of 1.2 seconds before you get that feedback. Whereas, when you’re sitting across from someone, it’s instantaneous.

So there’s a certain style of humor or a certain grace that will leave a pause at the end of a sentence, that implies “I could be done talking, if you want me to be, or I could keep going.” There’s a certain grace to these 10ths of a second. And the more that we talk to each other over cellphones, the more that communication starts to enter this very rigid walkie-talkies style: “Now I’m talking, now you’re talking.” And we lose something as a result.

Being really aware of the kinds of concessions that technology forces us to make, gives us an opportunity to think more deeply about what’s going on when we sit down across a table from someone. It gives us an opportunity to approach those interactions a little more mindfully and, I hope, better.

I don’t think it ever occurred to me that latency is why I hate talking on cellphones. I figured it was something wrong with me, my feeling that the other person is always distracted, but now I think it’s an instinctive reaction to that extra half-second delay of conversation, the unbridgeable distance it signifies. (Of course, that doesn’t explain why I find so many face-to-face conversations unbearable or awkward nowadays.)

But as I mentioned, this idea of human flattening-out is something I’ve turned over in my head for quite a while. While singing along to The National’s “I’m Afraid of Everyone” this past year, I’ve had to deal with the fact that my language is deteriorating. Years of editing trade magazine articles, of denuding press releases of their adjectives, of keeping up with RSS, Twitter and Facebook feeds, of forgetting poetry: they’ve taken a toll on me. I’m at a loss for words. When I’m nearly asleep, I find my thoughts getting structured in terms of screens of information. It’s not a condition I’m happy about (as I type away on this screen).

This weekend, I decided to cut my computer usage back a bit. I read a book over that span, wrote almost no e-mails, didn’t work on the long post about our Toronto trip last weekend: nada. It was refreshing. This morning, I zapped a bazillion RSS items, ignoring whatever recording angel thinks I should be monitoring them all. I marked-as-read, I closed tabs, I deleted bookmarks. Then I reread and savored the last two chapters of The Leopard.

Time for some poetry, before I get back to writing about single-use/disposable systems for bioprocessing tomorrow.

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