Books : reviews

Brian Christian.
The Most Human Human: a defence of humanity in the age of the computer.
Penguin Viking. 2011

For the first time in history, we are interacting with computers so sophisticated that we think they’re human beings. This is a remarkable feat of human ingenuity, but what does it say about our humanity? Are we really no better at being human than the machines we’ve created?

By mimicking our conversation and behaviour, computers have recently come within a single vote of passing the Turing Test, the widely accepted threshold at which a machine can be said to be ‘thinking’ or ‘intelligent’. In this witty, wide-ranging and inspiring investigation, Brian Christian takes the recent and breathtaking advances in artificial intelligence as the opportunity to rethink what it means to be human, and what it means to be intelligent, in the twenty-first century.

Competing head-to-head with the world’s leading AI programs at the annual Turing Test competition, he uses their astonishing achievements as well as their equally fascinating failings to reveal our most human abilities: to learn, to communicate, to intuit and to understand. And in an age when computers may be steering us away from these activities, he shows us how to become the most human humans that we can be.

Drawing on science, philosophy, literature and the arts, and touching on aspects of life as diverse as language, work, school, chess, speed-dating, art, video games, psychiatry and the law, The Most Human Human shows that, far from being a threat to our humanity, computers provide a better means than ever before of understanding what it is.

Brian Christian, Tom Griffiths.
Algorithms to Live By: the computer science of human decisions.
Collins. 2016

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 23 May 2021

What should we do, or leave undone, in a day or a lifetime?

Algorithms to Live By helps to solve common decision-making problems and illuminate the workings of the human mind. Asking us how to have better hunches, when to leave things to chance, how to deal with overwhelming choices or how best to connect with others – it shows how our computers’ methods have much to teach us. From finding your spouse to finding a parking spot, and from organizing your inbox to understanding the workings of memory – where you have a dilemma, they have a rule. In this eye-opening book each fascinating algorithm turns the wisdom of computer science into strategies for human living.

This book does several things very well indeed. It introduces a broad range of Computer Science’s fundamental algorithms, explaining them simply and clearly. It shows how we might apply these algorithms in our everyday lives, to help us make more efficient and effective decisions. And it shows that even when we have the provably best means of making a decision, it might not always (or even very often) work.

It covers approaches to searching, and when to stop looking for improvements over what you already have. It discuses sorting, and tradeoffs between time spent keeping things in order, and time spent finding them later. It covers scheduling, and how the best order to do things in depends very much on what you are trying to optimise. It finishes with game theory, explaining why some situations lead to poor outcomes for all, and how understanding this can help you know how to change the situation to get better outcomes. And it does all this, and more, with a light touch that makes it very readable.