Dear People of On Being,
I wonder how you might begin to answer the question of what it means to be human… That large, perplexing, cavernous question with no single answer and a million worthy reflections that has given so many brave On Being guests pause…
Now imagine pondering the question of what it means to be the most human human.
The On Being team and I have just come back from spending a full week at our Minneapolis office. The space is exquisite, with an enviable structure: open-concept with tall, majestic, floor-to-ceiling windows and a honey-kissed wooden skeleton that’s been aching for a fuller return of human bodies to bring their aliveness and warmth.
Krista welcomed us into the week with the invitation to notice what it felt like to be bodies in the company of other bodies — to remember the distinct affordances of relating, conversing, and creating together in person, especially once we would go back to being digitally rendered and against the edges of square boxes and dispersed time zones.
As a component of our time together, each member of our team arrived with a book in hand, inscribed with a note of how something in its pages had been formative to them. The book I had reached for was The Most Human Human by poet, philosopher, and computer scientist, Brian Christian. The book begins with a loaded provocation regarding artificial intelligence: maybe it’s not so much that machines are encroaching on the distinct qualities we humans possess, but that, perhaps, we’ve been receding in our own humanity. It’s a brash statement for Christian, who has been invited to participate in the inverse Turing test against AI bots with a chance to not only fight for “team human,” but also win the prize for being the most human human.
In preparing for this challenge, Christian is told to “just be yourself” — as if that’s not the work of a lifetime. Unsatisfied, he stumbles upon a philosopher studying Nietzsche, who brings depth to that advice through the insight of “being one self, any self.” It turns out that those sneaky bots, no matter how skillful they are at pretending they’re human, are always just gaming the conversation. Absent any higher order coherence, or sense of the whole, they fall short.
It fascinates me — and perhaps you can relate — how books have an odd way of finding us as we’re asking questions that haven’t yet revealed themselves. The book fair turned out to be a revealing example of how showing up and bumping up against each other in our highest fidelity — thick, fully dimensional and inimitably human form — allows for a deeply moving exploration of the humans that make up On Being and how we come together to form a kind of polyphonic organism.