Sunday, February 14, 2010

Upstairs in a Chinese Room

Philosopher John Searle famously wrote against the notion of artificial intelligence describing an imaginary construction called the "Chinese Room", in which a man in the room receives cards with marks on them and, following a list of instructions, makes marks on other cards that he sends back. The marks happen to be grammatical Chinese, such that the Chinese speaker outside the room writing the cards that go into the room judges the sequence of incoming and outgoing cards to be a cogent conversation in Chinese.

Searle's claim, which I disagree with, is that the "Chinese Room" cannot be said to understand Chinese; like the magician, he misdirects your attention to the fellow in the room who is just following the instructions. You're supposed to think of him as a doofus who just reads the instructions and follows them.

The opinion I hold, the "systems reply", is that it's the room as a whole that understands Chinese. Searle's response: OK, let the guy in the room memorize the book of instructions. If he didn't understand Chinese before, he doesn't now... so how can the room as a whole understand Chinese?

While it may not have anything to do with the issue of AI, I would argue that anyone following those instructions will learn Chinese. Searle wants you to think of the instructions as having purely to do with the marks on the cards, but if the output cards are, by hypothesis, judged to be a sensible conversation in Chinese, they can't be just that. If the incoming card says in Chinese "Who won the Super Bowl in 2010?" the instruction book has to say at some point to go find that out; to do otherwise will tip off the Chinese speaker outside. There aren't enough sources of just the information one wants to be able to always get by with "go look at this table on this Chinese language web site and fill in the ideographs you see in the second column of the row that has '2010' in the first column," the kind of ignorance-preserving instructions that Searle wants you to imagine. With enough conversation going on, eventually the harried follower of instructions will realize what the marks mean, and the technical term for that is "learning written Chinese".

Why am I telling you all this? Because it occurred to me, while at some random place looking something up on what even the label "smart phone" is becoming laughably inadequate for, that eventually we're all going to be Chinese rooms, and if I'm right, we're going to learn quite a bit. I look forward to it.

UPDATE: About that title: here you go. (I'll not embed the "video", as the page has links to other songs you will want to hear.) If you're unfamiliar with the amazing music of Laura Nyro, you have a lot of good listening ahead of you.

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