Book Review: What makes us human?

Friday, October 5, 2012

"A Working Theory of Love," by Scott Hutchins. Penguin Press, 328 pp. $25.95

We're getting to the point in our information age where the line between human and machine is blending. And, in place of what used to be clear distinction, all we have left is questions. What makes us different? How can we tell? How far are we willing to go until the difference is lost completely?

In 1950, Alan Turing published a paper titled "Computing Machinery and Intelligence," in which he poses the question: "Can machines think?" This question, and this paper, led to the Turing test, in which a computer must fool a judge into thinking that it is human, through an instant message conversation. In order for the computer to be considered "intelligent," Turing states, the computer must fool 30 percent of the judges.

It's this test that draws Neill Bassett, Jr., into the world of computer technology. His boss, Henry Livorno, has figured out that instead of creating a coherent human voice from scratch, he would bottle a human voice that already exists. Bassett's father, Neill Bassett, Sr., has kept a detailed record of his opinions for the last 20 years of his life, documented on 95 yellow legal pads.

The computer they created, named Dr. Bassett, is in many ways identical to the man who committed suicide when Neill was in college. He never knew his father the way he should have. In many ways, he resented the man. And now he has relegated himself to sitting in front of a computer screen, asking him questions and receiving his answers for eight hours every single day.

Hutchins examines the concept of humanity from every angle imaginable. Neill begins to know Dr. Bassett better than he knew his living father. He meets the identity-searching Rachel, who has discovered the sexual cult Pure Encounters. Pure Encounters is dedicated to "Clicking In": a way of connecting with your inner self and with the inner selves of those around you. As a form of protest against non-personal encounters, the local sex shop is burned down.

Everyone in this book is searching for answers to the questions mentioned above, and beautifully so. Neill was once married, though their love for each other powerfully waned after the wedding. Now he sees her, Erin, out with another man, and he wonders if they made the right decision in ending their relationship.

On a similar thread, Neill never once saw his parents openly express their affection for each other. However, devout Roman Catholics, they highly disapproved of divorce.

The questions Hutchins asks, and attempts to answer, are not new. They've been asked for decades already, with greater urgency the further we get into technological development.

With the increase in technology, it seems, there also appears to be a greater interest in the simpler times. The entire purpose of Pure Encounters is to retain what is left of the human-to-human connection. Rachel has always dreamt of churning butter.

Whether or not the questions can be answered is inconsequential. Neill may come to a greater understanding of what it means to "be human," but the working theory of love that he has is just that: working. Because to truly be human is to have the capability to evolve, to change, to remain a work in progress.

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