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“Ideas notebook – Brian Christian”

Date posted: 23 June 11, 09:00

 Brian Christian

By Brian Christian

We asked Brian Christian, author of The Most Human Human: A Defence of Humanity in the Age of the Computer to comment on his current work and ideas that have influenced him. Brian spoke in the festival in May.

Which of your own ideas have you been thinking about most recently?
One of the chapters of The Most Human Human is called “Barging In,” and it looks at the ways in which the fluid structure of real-world dialogues contrasts to the rigid turn-taking of things like email, walkie-talkies, and (increasingly) cell phones. Since encountering a number of the ideas about how we navigate conversations structurally – including everything from the way noticing someone drawing a breath will induce us to wrap up what we’re saying to make way for them, to the way the words “em” and “uh” hold the floor for us as we search for a word – I can’t help noticing how these mechanics play out in virtually every interaction I have, and observe, nowadays.

What idea of someone else has made most impact on you recently?
I was riveted to read about the recent decision made by the US Supreme Court that while corporations are considered “persons” under US law, they’re not entitled to “personal privacy” the way citizens are. The ruling is a significant one for corporate law here in the States, but what fascinated me was that the ruling basically came down to a question of grammar: are “person” and “personal” such related words that the adjective’s meaning and scope is necessarily the same as that of the noun’s? Typically when court cases come down to semantics, the court has turned to dictionaries – the turning point here was that they turned, instead, to computers. Corpus analysis, by crunching statistics on huge databases of English usage, revealed that these two words indeed had distinct usage patterns. It’s fascinating to think (a) that computers, long the masters of numbers, are only now becoming sophisticated enough to deal with words, and that (b) wrangling the complicated stats of real-world usage may well transform not only the law, but also the arts: by giving us for the first time a quantitative science of literary aesthetics. Lately I find myself thinking about these things to no end.

What are the most important books/articles/websites of ideas that everyone should read and why?
The idea-driven books that have affected me the most have been Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach and Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, both dating from the 1970s. To that list I would also add my favorite book of ideas from the nineteenth century, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden. In all three, a meditation on a particular subject – Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, a father-son road trip, and the decision to move to the woods, respectively – becomes a stunningly deep and broad meditation on the nature of life itself. They’re books you can really savor – for instance, read a single paragraph or page almost at random and simply ruminate on its ideas for a long while.


In 1910 Charles Masterman asked ‘What will the future make of the present?’ What do you think people in the future will make of the present?
To some extent, these years around the turn of the third millennium strike me as a turning point in one of the oldest philosophical questions there is – namely, what it means to be human. Philosophers at least as far back as Aristotle have been answering this question by turning towards the animal kingdom, and investigating what it is that makes humans different from other animals. In the twenty-first century, our benchmark has changed: we’re now much more interested and invested in figuring out how we differ from machines. I think this shift has begun an alteration in humans’ self-image – I would argue for the better – whose repercussions and reverberations we’re only just beginning to see.

What are you most pessimistic about?
I’m concerned with what seems to me to be a bit of a paradox regarding technology and communication – namely, as communication technology develops further and further, we seem to be regressing backwards into lower bandwidth, less rich modes of interaction. From talking face-to-face to landlines, to laggy and intermittent cell phones, to emails, to texts. That to me is very strange, and a bit ominous.

What are you most optimistic about?
I’m optimistic about how the computer is changing our sense of who we are. Descartes famously began his Meditations by seeking out “the easiest way to detach the mind from the body,” but increasingly we’re beginning to see that no such detachment is possible, let alone desirable: part of what it means to be human is, contra Descartes, to have a body, a set of senses, a society, a lifespan. I happen to think, frankly, that this set philosophy down a misguided path for a number of centuries. Computation, with all its seemingly “disembodied” logic, has in a roundabout way brought the body back to the heart of the human experience. I see this as being just one of a number of startling ways the computer is enriching our sense of who we are.

Who are your heroes?
I consider my heroes to be – among others – those who expand our sense of what’s possible. By that definition I mean to include everyone from the entrepreneurs and engineers advancing the leading edge of technology, to researchers pushing into the unknown, to artists breaking the rules we didn’t know were rules. I also mean to include, in particular, teachers everywhere.

Further information

Brian Christian was born in 1984. He holds a dual degree from Brown University in computer science and philosophy, and an MFA in poetry. His work has appeared in both literary and scientific journals. In 2009, he competed with the world’s leading artificial intelligence software at the international Turing Test competition, where he was awarded the prize for ‘The Most Human Human’. The Most Human Human: A Defence of Humanity in the Age of the Computer is his first book.

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