Human Quintessence

7 July 2015

A diploma mill has decreed upon me all the rights and privileges of a B.S. degree. That means I’m officially educated in “Information.” It was a new program at the University of Michigan, and I was a member of the first graduating class. The curriculum was designed to cover the intersection between people, information, and technology. As such, I should be well-versed in human-computer interaction. Well…


. . .


After being accepted into the university, I took some tests and wrote an essay to determine my placement in first-year courses. The essay was to revolve around the ideas discussed in an Atlantic article by Brian Christian. The article was a reflection on the Turing Test—an annual competition between supercomputers and humans. Judges would communicate with humans and computers, and the test determined how “human” each party could be through language. The most human of computers would pass the test.


Christian, a member of the human party, claimed that humanity is defined by our ability to connect and communicate in interesting ways. The best humans and computers didn’t have perfect spelling or grammar and didn’t rely on formulaic pleasantries. They conveyed more than the average person by means that were seemingly unteachable. Essentially: language is the human quintessence.


So upon entering college, I believed that humankind is unique because humankind has sophisticated language. We speaks countless tongues and dialects and convey abstract thought through intangible means yet craft concrete change. It was impressive and beautiful. I studied Latin and English and spent personal time honing my language. This was the most human I could be.


But, as any good institution should do, the university pushed me to take a breadth of courses, most unrelated to language. Astrobiology, anthropology, digital communities, graphic design, calculus, and programming contributed to my broad curriculum. The depth of these fields was incredible, and the combined work of generations led to groundbreaking changes on multiple fronts. Without the transfer of knowledge, the information would have been lost.


Language was often the tool to achieving these milestones, as written text conveyed ideas across generations. But I came to realize it may not be the defining trait of humanity. Birds chirped to one another. Dogs could communicate with scent and sound. Many life-forms use language.


As I explored computer science and technology, I thought creation was the great human activity. The ability to plan and build and bring things to life must be our purpose. Yet again, I was wrong. We created computers to do work we either didn’t want to do or just do more efficiently. Some primates could use tools to make their lives easier, so this isn’t uniquely human.


. . .


For the latter half of college, I dated a linguist. Most of her work with language involved breaking sounds into quantifiable parts. It was fascinating and highly complex. It takes much human effort, but we are enabling computers to process natural language. Our ability to not only create a machine but to teach it sophisticated language seemed so human. Perhaps education itself is something that is distinctly human?


I toyed with the idea of pursuing education as a career. Passing on knowledge and wisdom to coming generations was noble and exciting. It’s a great field, but education for its own sake couldn’t be the driving force of humanity. Like language, it’s a sophisticated method of conveying ideas. Without a purpose, though, it cannot be the human quintessence. It felt close nonetheless.


Most of my education at the university had occurred outside the classroom. Several jobs, internships, and student organizations, taught me a good deal. Experiencing the impact of social identities, the power of leadership, and tenderness of human interaction helped me understand that humankind is both boringly simple and frustratingly complex. On its own, humankind is no different from any form of life: a collection of chemicals living on a sphere that revolves about another sphere. But given some direction, great things can occur.


. . .


Upon leaving Michigan, I hope to have left it better than I found it—it certainly has done that to me. For me, inventiveness and creativity were means to building many things—companies, student organizations, and works of art—and leaving them in good hands required sufficient education and language. These are great tools. But they aren’t the quintessence. What I’ve learned is that improvement—of ourselves, of the race, and of our world—is the human spirit. Not in a 1950s “progress” sort of way—not of mowing down forests to build puritan gardens or expedite sales, etc.—but that humans can discover underlying problems and work to combat them to improve their conditions and the state of the world. We can educate each other so that we may accomplish more as a whole. That is the human quintessence.


And when that spirit is aided with greater tools, more is possible. Human-computer interaction is a young field concerned with this relationship. While we have much to learn about the fruits of this labor, we can be assured that this man-machine hybrid is inline with our purpose. It will bring us to new places.


And I like new places.