Saturday, August 27, 2011

The most human human

I've a review of two books in The Australian today, 'Open the pod bay doors, HAL'.

As the 2001-inspired title suggests, both books concern the relationship between humans and technology: Brian Christian's Most Human Human, and Moonwalking with Einstein, by Joshua Foer.

Christian and Foer are both comfortable with technology - neither is a doomsayer or hypester.  But they are rightly concerned about what we can give up to machines: creativity, control, memory.  And both are illuminating on the hallmarks of humanity, like guessing (instead of calculation) and idiosyncratic symbolism (instead of formal grammar).

Appropriately, there's an error in the text - a 'was' left behind by someone editing.  A sample:
How do we know it is a human typing or texting? Put more philosophically: In a machine age, what are the hallmarks of this bluebird, human consciousness? 
Philosophy has a long history of answering this question with "reason". For example, numbers were sovereign for Plato: mathematical calculations "lead the mind towards truth" and allowed philosopher-kings to see the cosmic blueprint. But my MacBook can compute more quickly and correctly than the most gifted savant. And no one but Steve Jobs's disciples believes Apple's products are celestial. 
As American science writer and poet Brian Christian argues in The Most Human Human, computers challenge our basic ideas of humankind. Importantly, he interprets this challenge with subtlety: less a duel to the death, more a friendly rivalry.
(Photo: NASA)

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