Monday, June 23, 2008

John Searle, The Chinese Room

Philosophy professor at Berkeley, On Intelligence

The Chinese Room:

Suppose you have a room with a slot in one wall, and inside is an English-speaking person sitting at a desk, He has a big book of instructions and all the pencils and scratch paper he could ever need. Flipping through the book, he sees that the instructions, written in English, dictate ways to manipulate, sort and compare Chinese characters. Mind you, the directions say nothing about the meanings of the Chinese characters; they only deal with how the characters are to be copied, erased reordered, transcribed and so forth.

Someone outside the room slips a piece of paper through the slot. On it is written a story and questions about the story, all in Chinese. The man inside doesn't speak or read a word of Chinese, but he picks up the paper and goes to work with the rulebook. He toils and toils, rotely following instructions in the book. At the times the instructions tell him tow rite characters on scrap paper, and at the other times to move and erase characters. Applying rule after rule, writing and erasing characters, the man works until the book's instructions tell him he is done. When he is finished at last he has written a new page of characters, which unbeknownst to him are the answers to the questions. The book tells him to pass his paper back through the slot. He does it, and wonders what this whole tedious exercise has been about.

Outside, a Chinese speaker reads the page. The answers are all correct, she notes--even insightful. If she is asked whether those answers came from an intelligent mind that had understood the story, she will definitely say yes. But can she be right? Who understood the story? It wasn't the fellow inside, certainly; he is ignorant of Chinese and has no idea what the story was about. It wasn't the book, which is just, well, a book, sitting inertly on the writing desk amid piles of paper. So where did the understanding occur? Searle's answer is that no understanding did occur; it was just an bunch of mindless page flipping and pencil scratching. And now the bait-and-switch: the Chinese Room is exactly analogous to a digital computer. The person is the CPU, mindlessly executing instructions, the book is the software program feeding instructions to the CPU, and the scratch paper is the memory. Thus, no matter how cleverly a computer is designed to simulate intelligence by producing the same behavior as a human, it has no understanding and it is not intelligent. (Searle made it clear he didn't know what intelligence is; he was only saying that whatever it is, computers don't have it)

--Jeff Hawkins, On Intelligence

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